A billion years ago, the Earth was an exceptionally unpleasant place. Temperatures were unbearable and the air was unbreathable, with carbon dioxide comprising about one-third of the atmosphere.
Then a tiny new life form entered the picture and changed everything.
Known as microalgae, these single-celled organisms evolved from the primordial soup, absorbing atmospheric gasses and reducing CO2 levels to a fraction of a percent, fostering an environment in which higher life could form and, eventually, breathe.
“We wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for algae; it was algae that originally oxygenated the atmosphere,” said Scott Franklin, vice president of molecular biology at Solazyme, a San Francisco-based company that specializes developing sustainable oils and products from microalgae.
Eons later, microalgae remain firmly established at the base of the food chain, fueling all sorts of creatures, including humans. Centuries ago, some African populations and Aztecs in Central and South America were already farming algae for food. Seaweed, a form of algae, remains to this day a dietary staple in Japan.
Scientists now suspect that it was a single type of water-dwelling algae that came ashore hundreds of millions of years ago, kick-starting the evolution of all terrestrial plant life.
Microalgae itself has evolved in remarkable ways, allowing it to survive in nearly every corner of the planet. These resilient organisms can thrive in environmental extremes that include subzero glaciers and hot springs with temperatures that top 100 degrees Celsius. They are found in the deepest parts of the ocean and on the highest mountain peaks.
“They’ve had a long time to evolve and occupy a variety of different habitats, as opposed to humans, who aren’t very old,” said Franklin.
It’s that adaptability that makes modern microalgae so useful to humans, said Tammy Yasier, Solazyme’s vice president of product development and head formulator for its skincare line, Algenist.
“Microalgae has been able to adapt and evolve because of its unique composition, which includes oils, antioxidants and amino acids,” she said. “There’s nothing else like it in nature, and so it’s incredibly important not just for the planet, but for nutrition, as well.”
Microalgae can pull energy from two distinct sources — sun and sugar — to survive. Like higher plants, some microalgae species use photosynthesis (taking in carbon dioxide and churning out oxygen), while others have shed their ability to photosynthesize. The latter, “which Solazyme uses as the foundation of its biotechnology platform, can take in sugars externally and turn them into energy, just like you or I do,” said Franklin.
Microalgae store that energy as oil. And it’s that oil that has scientists so excited.
Franklin’s company, Solazyme, works with three species of algae, each of which consumes sugars to produce oil. By exposing the sensitive but adaptable organisms to changes in temperature, light or nourishment, Franklin’s team can encourage microalgae to generate various varieties of oil.
“One of the oils we can produce is very much like palm oil,” he said. “But unlike palm oil, which is tied to rainforest destruction, Solazyme’s palm oil is sustainable.”
The company’s algal oil can be used in a wide array of products, including heart-healthy foods, eco-friendly laundry detergents, renewable fuels and green industrials. It can be used to replace animal fats, vegetable oils and petroleum.
“That’s an industry that’s really looking for ways to use more renewables,” said Franklin of petroleum. “And microalgae is completely renewable.”
Just add sugar.