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Slime

How Algae Created Us, Plague Us, and Just Might Save Us

By Ruth Kassinger
15-minute read
Audio available
Slime by Ruth Kassinger

Slime (2019) unlocks the mysteries of algae – that slimy stuff many of us don’t think twice about. Even though it may be a nuisance to owners of pools and aquariums, algae has a rich history in the development of both the planet and humankind. It holds some amazing potential for solving our problems with fossil fuels and the harmful emissions that are destroying our planet.

  • Curious minds interested in science
  • Environmentally conscious people
  • Anyone concerned about the future

Ruth Kassinger is an award-winning writer, who has contributed to such publications as the Chicago Tribune, the Washington Post, and National Geographic Explorer. Her previous books include A Garden of Marvels and Paradise Under Glass. She has also written a variety of science and nature books for young adults.

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Slime

How Algae Created Us, Plague Us, and Just Might Save Us

By Ruth Kassinger
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 9 key ideas
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Slime by Ruth Kassinger
Synopsis

Slime (2019) unlocks the mysteries of algae – that slimy stuff many of us don’t think twice about. Even though it may be a nuisance to owners of pools and aquariums, algae has a rich history in the development of both the planet and humankind. It holds some amazing potential for solving our problems with fossil fuels and the harmful emissions that are destroying our planet.

Key idea 1 of 9

Algae played an important role in making the planet inhabitable for human beings.

What is algae? It may sound like a simple question, but the answer isn’t simple at all. Algae is a very broad term that covers a wide range of different organisms that can be found on both land and sea. It could refer to microalgae, which includes the single-celled organisms that can form pond scum, or macroalgae, which includes the seaweed that you might find in your favorite sushi roll.

There’s a good chance you’ve encountered algae in some form or another, but what you may not know is that algae have been around a lot longer than we have.

The key message here is: Algae played an important role in making the planet inhabitable for human beings. 

If we turned the clock back 3.7 billion years, the planet was a very inhospitable place – at least for human beings and plant life. Back then, the planet didn’t have breathable oxygen, an ozone layer, or any soil. In fact, it would be another 3 billion years before the first plant arrived.

But there were oceans on Earth back then, and they were home to single-celled organisms like bacteria and archaea. Around this time, a new organism evolved and took up residence on the surface of the sea. Since it has a blue-green appearance, we call it cyanobacteria – otherwise known as blue-green algae

Cyanobacteria did something amazing: it performed the process of photosynthesis, which means it trapped solar energy and used that energy to make organic compounds. In this case, the process involved breaking down water into hydrogen and oxygen, and essentially burping that oxygen out.

Cyanobacteria could also multiply at an amazing rate – sometimes doubling every two hours. And so, over the next 2 billion years, the oxygen they made found its way into the atmosphere to form Earth’s protective ozone layer. This made it possible for things like plants and humans to exist and not be scorched to death by the sun’s rays.

But that’s not all! Cyanobacteria also created fixed nitrogen compounds like ammonium. These compounds are some of the essential building blocks of life and are what led to the formation of more complex ocean life.

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