Long Live the Pond Scum

Posted about 3 weeks ago by Jonah Butler
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We can all agree, the world is a pretty fascinating place comprised of the tiniest microbes to the tallest mountains and deepest oceans. But beyond the grandeur sits a more modest contender, algae. From the toxic, primordial state to the modern anthropocene, algae single-handedly gave way to the flourishing, complex life of now.

Slime by Ruth Kassinger is an eye-opening journey into the microscopic world of algae.  It stands out over the ordinary science text. One of Ruth’s gifts is for the narrative. She breathes life into the story of algae, giving it an almost fairytale-esque mythos inside the creation story of our planet. A lot of the scientific reads out there in book land can be a total yawn fest, choosing the delivery of cold, hard fact over story development. Granted, that isn’t necessarily the responsibility of a non-fiction text. Nevertheless Ruth offers readers this petri dish drama alongside a wealth of facts, making the book all the more special and hard to put down.

The book is a spaceship through time.

Gif of the cartoon Magic School Bus blasting off and taking the students on a field trip

Ruth begins somewhere 3.7 billion years ago. We blast through the years, seeing the earth as a mostly coarse, volcanic rock teeming with green iron-rich oceans until arriving in present tense. Through the ages we meet cyanobacteria and learn about its impressive upbringing. Even now, you’re still probably thinking: a book about algae can’t be that cool. At least that’s what I thought.

Slimes ventures into two major topics. It begins with cyanobacteria. Aptly named for its cyan color, this type of bacteria wreaks havoc on shores and local water supplies through deadly algal blooms. The other is an algae, specifically the one used in cooking: seaweed.

Awesome Facts about Algae You Probably Didn’t Know

1. Cyanobacteria is/was the parent to all micro-algae.
2. Those slimy green micro particles caused an ice age.
3. We have cyanobacteria to thank for our earth’s supply of steel. That event was called The Great Oxidization Event. So next time you have your dinner with a steel fork or drive over a steel bridge, send out a little thank you to that primordial pond scum.
4. Modern algae evolved from cyanobacteria being swallowed up by other organisms. They lived happily inside their hosts, mutually reaping the benefits from one another. That form eventually led to what we have now: red, green and brown algae.

Ok, so maybe algae hasn’t completely caught your interest just yet. Ruth is only warming up in her history of seaweed.

As we continue on our journey through time with our intrepid guide, we learn about seaweed being the first life form to make the transition to land. Of course this was no overnight feat. But these descendants were the liverworts. And they still thrive today. But they were not alone in their transition. In other parts of the world was another life taking the daring step to land, the fungi, and more specifically the lichen. Both plants took different paths to the same destination. And it just so happens that lichens are still around too, also thriving. They are now considered the oldest known living organisms on our planet.

And all this is quite amazing. The world has a lot of thank-yous to give to algae, aside from that whole, ahem, destruction of the world by way of ice age. But when humanity stepped onto the scene, it is believed that algae took us from primates to problem solving Homo sapiens. It can be argued that all of the luxuries we have now can be traced back to algae. Ok, seriously, this is for real.

The Land of Fish and Seaweed

Once primates got out of the trees and started walking on two legs, it was a shift in diet from a primarily forest-dwelling menu that kickstarted the Homo sapien. The food available in the forest just wasn’t rich enough to support a major brain change. Turns out this land of milk and honey was actually the land of fish and seaweed. It was along the shorelines that gave way to some serious evolving. One nutrient in particular was iodine. And it largely makes up seaweed. Ruth shows that this ingredient is one of the most important for brain development in helping build neural networks.

And  even extending into present time, seaweed still continues to be crucial to many diets around the world. It even nourishes farmlands as a fertilizer. It holds medicinal effects and can be used in glass manufacturing. Seaweed ethanol and edible seaweed oils. It is even possible that our dependence on fossil fuels could be erased by switching to a seaweed fuel. Aside from giving foot massages after long and stressful days, seaweed essentially does it all.

These are only a few things from Ruth Kassinger’s Slime that tell the remarkable story of seaweed. It’s a book worth investigating. I know I was in the dark about just how important seaweed was and continues to be for our world. Reading it gave me a similar feeling as to when I first read Carl Sagan and heard that famous line about being made from star stuff. It turns out algae was there too(of course much later) in that long chain of cosmic happenings that brought us to where we are now.

I know next time I’m having some of my favorite sushi I won’t be able to look at those tiny sheets of nori the same. And that for me is the mark of a great book: how it prompts a change in thinking. So visit your local library and check out Slime today.

Long Live the Pond Scum.