Spirulina is the immortal descendent of the first photosynthetic life form. Beginning 3.5 billion years ago, blue-green algae created our oxygen atmosphere so other life could evolve. Since then, algae have helped regulate our planet’s biosphere.
In the beginning were blue-green algae
When life began on Earth, the carbon dioxide level in our atmosphere was probably 100 times greater than it is today. Life began in a greenhouse atmosphere, and microalgae played the central role in transforming this inhospitable planet into the beauty and richness that makes up life today. How this occurred is particularly relevant in view of our concern with global warming.
Scientists believe the Earth formed about 4.5 billion years ago, and the first life forms appeared 3.6 billion years ago.
The first living bacteria, the procaryotes, consumed chemical nutrients as food, but some adapted the energy of the sun to make their own food. The first photosynthesizing procaryotes, called cyanobacteria or blue-green algae, used light energy to break apart the abundant carbon dioxide and water molecules into carbon food compounds, releasing free oxygen. Fossils dating back 3.6 billion years, show filaments of these single cells stacked end on end. The shape unmistakably is spirulina.
The procaryotes, cyanobacteria or blue-green algae, still cover the land and water surfaces, part of the living mechanism that helps regulate the planet’s biosphere. Realizing that algae took billions of years to build and maintain the atmosphere, it is remarkable that humanity has raised the carbon dioxide concentration over 25% in merely one hundred years.
Microalgae are everywhere—in water, in soils, on rocks, on plants. Blue-green algae are the most primitive, and contain no nucleus or chloroplast. Their cell walls evolved before cellulose, and are composed of softmucopolysaccharides. Blue-green algae do not sexually reproduce; they simply divide.
Blue-green algae are cyanobacteria
Spirulina is not a nitrogen fixing blue-green algae. It grows in extreme alkaline and high PH environments. Spirulina has a long history of human consumption, known to be safe and nutritious. Most kinds of blue-green algae have not been subject to spirulina’s long safety testing. Hundreds of published scientific studies over the past thirty years have documented no toxicity.
Spirulina lakes and pink flamingos
In natural lakes, the limited supply of nutrients usually regulates growth cycles. New nutrients come from an upwelling from inside the earth, when rains wash soils into the lakes, or from pollution. The algae grows rapidly, reaches a maximum density, and then dies off when nutrients are exhausted. A new seasonal cycle begins when decomposed algae release their nutrients or when more nutrients flow into the lake.
Spirulina blooms naturally in alkaline or soda lakes around the world. Historical records document traditional peoples harvesting and consuming spirulina from lakes in Mexico, Africa and Asia.
Some of the largest natural spirulina lakes are in Central Africa around Lake Chad, and in East Africa along the Great Rift Valley. Under normal water conditions, spirulina may be one of many algae species. But the more alkaline water becomes, the more inhospitable to other life forms, allowing spirulina to flourish as a single species.
Lakes Bodou and Rombou in Chad have a stable monoculture of spirulina dating back centuries. It is predominant in Kenya’s lakes Nakuru and Elementeita and Ethiopia’s lakes Aranguadi and Kilotes. The lesser flamingo evolved a filter in its beak to eat spirulina.
Huge flocks of pink flamingos populate East African lakes, feeding on spirulina
Spirulina thrives in alkaline lakes where it is difficult or impossible for other microorganisms to survive. Because the bacteria level in alkaline water is quite low, the bacteria count in spirulina, harvested and dried without further processing, is low. Algae pioneers have dreamed for decades of harvesting from these lakes to feed millions of nearby hungry people and to support a healthy local economy.
Our rediscovery and interest in algae, the original life form, represents a return to the origins of life to understand and heal our planet.