Monday, February 28, 2022

Could Algae Save The World?

A strand of seaweed in a beaker.
At this point in the 21st century, widespread pollution and climate change are existential problems for our species. Our planet will adapt and remain standing, but whether humans will be part of it is the big question. However, as with many of the big questions, Nature has supplied us with an answer. In this case, it’s algae. As the largest supplier of oxygen and a vital link in the food chain, algae in all its forms is crucial to life on earth but scientists are routinely discovering other ways that algae can help us humans. Algae is positioned to solve many of  our most pressing environmental issues, now we just have to make it happen.

Microalgae
In case you need a reminder: Algae is the overall term that covers the photosynthetic organisms of microalgae and macroalgae. Microalgae are the unicellular microscopic algae and are often referred to as phytoplankton. Macroalgae, on the other hand, are large-celled, plant-like forms known as seaweed. This whole subject can get very granular quickly, but here’s a quick little cheat sheet that gives more information.

Strands of seaweed reaching for the light underwater. Photo by Naja Bertolt on Unsplash.

PETROLEUM:

Phytoplankton are constantly working their magic to photosynthesize the sun’s rays. In doing so, they store energy in the form of natural oils. These oils can be distilled into a biofuel that could replace all manner of transportation fuels from gasoline to jet fuel. Additionally, simple sugars are made available when algae is broken down in water and these can be fermented to make bioethanol. Using algae to replace petroleum as an energy source isn’t without its set-backs (see the pros and cons here), but just because the road may be bumpy does not mean we shouldn’t go down it.

PETROLEUM-BASED PRODUCTS:

A scientist holding a piece of algae close to the camera.
The same characteristics make algae uniquely positioned to replace petroleum as a fuel source also pertain to commercial products that contain petroleum. According to this article, almost anything made with petroleum can be made with algae. The number of everyday items that are petroleum-based  is staggering and includes things as diverse as toothpaste and upholstery (see more here). As we all know, our dependence on fossil fuels/petroleum is damaging to the environment, but it is also a destabilizing factor in many aspects of modern life. Simply put, algae could save us from the economic effects of political and environmental events in oil-producing regions. Algae can be cultivated anywhere there’s a water source, which would make this energy source more equally available across the world. 

PLASTICS:

A chart showing how algae can be used to fight plastic pollution.
Plastic pollution is a glaringly obvious desecration of our environment (particularly the marine ecosystems) and a serious danger to the health and wellbeing of every creature on the food chain of this planet. Algae is able to tackle this mega-problem in two ways: It can be used to degrade plastic and it can be used to make bioplastics. Algae has many properties that make it ideal for bioplastic production, including its low lignin content and abundant carbohydrates. Also, algae is 100% biodegradable, so the bioplastic it makes goes back to the earth to begin the cycle anew. As far as breaking down plastic goes, scientists have discovered plastic can be degraded by the toxin systems and and enzymes synthesized by algae. Not only will the algae breakdown the plastic, but it will also use the plastic polymers as a carbon source. The possibilities are heartening; learn more here.

FERTILIZERS:

Microscopic view of microalgae.
The AlgaEnergy facility with algae bioreactors in the foreground.
AlgaEnergy facilities
Fertilizers are some of the greatest polluters and contributors to cancer on our planet and the amount used globally every year is stupefying – it’s in the 100s of millions of tons (details here). Moving away from harmful synthetic fertilizers towards plant-based ones shouldn’t be a hard sell as kelp has been used for who-knows-how-many thousands of years as a fertilizer. But many people need to be brought around by some sort of innovation. This is where one of our partners, AlgaEnergy, comes in. Kelp fertilizers are traditionally created by harvesting kelp from the sea and then building and maintaining kelp beds. AlgaEnergy has used technology to create a way to move from that traditional form of macroalgae-based fertilizer to a microalgae-based one. They have a facility in Spain that captures the CO2 emissions from a power plant and use that energy to cultivate microalgae. By piggybacking on another industry, they reduce the amount of energy resources they would have used to create their products and they gobble up CO2 emissions would otherwise be released into the atmosphere. Their process is technologically advanced, environmentally sound, and completely sustainable. In the interest of space I have condensed all they do; I encourage you to go to their site (here) to learn more. And I also encourage you to try their microalgae products, Surety® MA and Surety® Soil.

A journey through the kelp forest.

Although the possibilities for algae are nearly limitless, there is still a lot of research and development to be done for us to be able to appreciate all it can do. Nevertheless, the advantages are so extensive (here are just 10) that we need to press forward and come up with the needed solutions, like AlgaEnergy has done. 

Submitted by Pam




Tuesday, February 8, 2022

What's This Bug? The Ice Crawler.

A brown Ice Crawler on grey ice.
As I write this, winter storms are creating misery across huge portions of the US. There’s just so much snow and ice a person can take. But that is not the case with the Ice Crawler (aka Rock Crawler, Ice Bug) of the Grylloblattodea order. These critically endangered insects are small insects (about an inch) that live in cold and snowy mountainous places like ice fields, glaciers, subterranean lava tubes, and ice caves.

A female on a clump of ice in someone's hand. You an see her ovipostor at the rear of her body.
Ice Crawlers are only found in western North America and Canada and in northeast Asia. In these areas this plucky insect has carved out a place for itself where they have less risk of being preyed upon and are not competing with other insects. They thrive in temperatures that hover around the freezing mark, but they will freeze to death if it gets much lower. Conversely, temperatures much above that point will kill them as well. In fact, merely holding them in a warm hand too long can kill them. They have adapted to living on mountains as temperatures there tend to be more stable than in lower altitudes. And if it gets too cold, they will go underground or under the snow (an insect igloo). Their preferred temperature range is too cold for most insects; the ones that venture there quickly die. There are also fewer of the common predators (birds, small mammals) up there, but if one comes too close they will retreat into their underground lairs. In addition to all these adaptions, Ice Crawlers have adopted a nocturnal lifestyle to further enhance their survival chances.

A Mount Spokane Ice Crawler foraging in the ground.
If high altitude landscapes offer specific survival benefits for Ice Crawlers, they also offer little in the way of food. Ice Crawler has adapted to this in a very basic way – they’ll pretty much eat anything they come across. It is believed that they feed on aerial plankton, but they also scavenge under rocks for decaying plant
matter or mosses. Additionally, they will snap up any hapless flies or moths that made the fatal error of visiting the snowy realms. 

Ice Crawlers have an unusually long lifespan for an insect. Long lives are common amongst cold weather dwellers, and for the Ice Crawler it can take as much as 7 years to complete a life cycle from egg to adult. Add to that the year or so that an adult can live, and you got yourself the Methuselah of the insect world. 

Professor Sean Schoville at work on a mountaintop.
Unfortunately, all these adaptations that have allowed the Ice Crawler to survive in an environment that is inhospitable to most other living things is what is putting their species at risk for extinction. Just as amphibian health reflects the condition of the watery world they live in; Ice Crawlers reflect the ice that’s their home. As we lose ice to climate change, their numbers are falling. Scientists know that much, but there is still a lot to learn about these shy insects and the fear is that we are losing populations before we even know they existed. Luckily, we have some scientists who are willing to spend hours sitting on ice to get the needed data. Sean Schoville, a professor at the University of Wisconsin deserves a special shout-out .He has gone the extra mile (literally) to discover as much as he can about these little creatures. If you want to learn more about what he does, check out this fun article written by an adventurous man who joined him on an expedition (there are some great pictures). 


Submitted by Pam




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