What Is The Ecological Importance Of Algae?

Algae on a lake surface. Algae produces much-needed oxygen for aquatic species.

What Is Algae?

The word algae generally refer to a wide array of plants that share the name though not closely related. Although the exact origin of the word algae is unknown, the singular form, alga, is a Latin word that refers to seaweed. Some etymologists have theorized that the term algae may have its roots in the Latin language from the word algēre, which refers to the cold. However, the theory faces great opposition as the link between the plants and temperature is exceptionally small.

Algae may range from simple unicellular organisms to more complex multicellular organisms like the giant kelp. Studies of some algae species have indicated that they do not have specialized tissue present in land plants like the xylem, phloem, and stomata. The absence of these cells is an evolutionary adaptation to the regions where the plants thrive.

Algae have existed in the world over a long period with some fossils discovered in the Vindhya basin being close to 2 billion years old. Scientists have extensively studied the distribution patterns of algae as they are found in a significant number of areas around the world where they perform several vital functions.

Ecological Importance of Algae

As a Source of Oxygen

One of the most important roles played by algae in the environment is the production of oxygen as a by-product in the process of photosynthesis. One of the similarities between land plants and several algae species is the presence of chlorophyll which allows them to form organic food molecules by utilizing energy from the sun and carbon dioxide. The process is essential to the survival of algae as the food molecules provide them with energy. After the completion of the process, oxygen is released.

Due to the large amount of algae in the world, it is responsible for the production of more than 30% of the oxygen that land animals rely on for their survival. Several estimates indicate that the amount of oxygen produced by the algae is close to 50% of what terrestrial animals need. If the algae die off due to the depletion of minerals in the water, the decomposition and subsequent decline in oxygen production may lead to the death of the fish.

The algae also make use of the oxygen for respiration. Despite contributing significantly to the oxygen available in the world, algae may cause a reduction in the levels of oxygen levels in ponds and lakes in certain conditions. 

As a Source of Food

Algae occupy the position of producer within a food chain which means that numerous food chains begin with them. They are immensely important because it is a food source to a large number of aquatic animals ranging from tadpoles to fish species such as the catfish and the Siamese algae eater. Life in the ocean is heavily dependent on algae as the organisms that feed on algae are eaten by larger species ensuring that life continues in the sea.

People in various communities, particularly Asian societies, also consume algae. The people who eat algae praise it for its high nutritional value. Most people who eat algae prefer to eat the chlorella variety as it has been proven to have an exceptionally high quantity of chlorophyll in addition to other nutrients important for the body. According to research published in the Journal of cell science, feeding on plants with a high concentration of chlorophyll introduces the chemical to the bloodstream. Once in the blood, it can allow humans to naturally produce ATP, an energy-rich molecule, while in the sunlight. The study also found that worms with an optimal amount of chlorophyll in their systems had a longer lifespan than other worms which may indicate that people who take in sufficient quantities of chlorophyll may have a longer life expectancy.

As an Indicator of Pollution

Algae is also important as it can indicate whether a water body is polluted. According to the Washington State Lake Protection Association, some factors make algae well suited to showing whether a water body is contaminated. One of the factors is the nutrient needs; since scientists have already studied the nutrients that algae need to survive, they can make inferences on the state of the water based on the health of the algae. Another factor is that they reproduce rapidly and the offspring can be analyzed to check whether it is similar to their predecessor or the pollution has altered its genetic make-up. Algae also have a short life cycle which reduces the time it would typically take scientists to study the species for an indication of pollution.

Algae can also indicate what kinds of pollutants are affecting a water body as different pollutants have a different effect on its growth. Farm chemicals particularly fertilizers have a large concentration of chemicals such as phosphorous and nitrogen which contribute to the rapid growth of algae. Other pollutants contain a high level of heavy metals which when taken up by the algae in sufficient quantities may inhibit the growth of the plant.

As a Provision of Habitat

Large species of algae encourage the growth and spread of aquatic life as they provide habitats for several species. Kelp forests are examples of large species of algae that provide habitat to numerous organisms. More than one species of kelp can often be found within a single kelp forest. Animals that may be located within kelp forests include nudibranchs, snails, skeleton shrimp, and sea urchins among others.

As an Indicator of Climate Change

According to research published on Irish Marine Life, algae may be used as an indicator of climate change. A large amount of algae within the environment absorbs vast quantities of carbon dioxide reducing the buildup of the gas in the atmosphere. The research indicates that by comparing historical data on the growth of algae to recent data on its distribution, conclusions can be drawn on the climate change over the years.

The Economic Significance of Algae

Apart from playing a vital role in the world's ecology, algae perform an important function in the world's economy. Research indicates that algae can by used by the agricultural industry in the production of fertilizers due to the high nutrient content. Algae are also used in sewage treatment to remove toxic particles. Algae are also important in the manufacture of medicine particularly antibiotics such as chlorellin.

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