EGEE 439
Alternative Fuels from Biomass Sources

10.2 What are Algae?

Algae are eukaryotic organisms, which are organisms whose cells contain a nucleus and other structures (organelles) enclosed within membranes. They live in moist environments, mostly aquatic, and contain chlorophyll.

Algae are not terrestrial plants, which have 1) true roots, stems, and leaves, 2) vascular (conducting) tissues, such a xylem and phloem, and 3) lack of non-reproductive cells in the reproductive structures. Algae are not cyanobacteria. Cyanobacteria are prokaryotes, which lack membrane-bound organelles and have a single circular chromosome. Figure 10.1a shows the cellular composition of blue-algae and 1b shows a micrograph of the cells. The cell has a wall with a gelatinous coat. Just beneath the cell wall is a plasma membrane. Within the cell, there are layers of phycobilisomes, photosynthetic lamellae, ribosomes, protein granules, and circular DNA known as nucleoids. These are typical components of growing plants - however, the component we are interested in are lipid droplets, which are oils that can be extracted from the algae.

diagram of cell structure of blue algae, see above text for important information. See link in caption for text description
Figure 10.1a: Cell structure of blue-algae.
Click for a text description of Figure 10.1a.
Cell Structure of blue-algae including liquid droplet, nucleoid (circular DNA), protein granule, ribosome, photosynthetic lamellae, phycobilisomes (cyanosomes), plasma membrane, cell wall, gelatinous coat
Credit: TutorVista
micrograph of blue-algae, blue circles with several green dots within them
Figure 10.1b: Micrograph of blue-algae.
Credit: B.R. Speer

Algae is composed of ~ 50% carbon, 10% nitrogen, and 2% phosphorus. Table 10.3 shows the composition of various algae looking at the percentages of protein, carbohydrates, lipids, and nucleic acid.

Table 10.3: Composition of algae – protein, carbohydrates, lipids, and nucleic acid.
Species Protein Carbohydrates Lipids Nucleic acid
Scenedesmus obliquus (green alga) 50-56 10-17 12-14 3-6
Scenedesmus quadricauda 47 - 1.9 -
Scenedesmus dimorphus 8-18 21-52 16-40 -
Chlamydomonas rheinhardii (green alga) 48 17 21 -
Chlorella vulgaris (green alga) 51-58 12-17 14-22 4-5
Chlorella pyrenoidosa 57 26 2 -
Spirogyra sp. 6-20 33-64 11-21 -
Dunaliella bioculata 49 4 8 -
Dunaliella salina 57 32 6 -
Euglena gracilis 39-61 14-18 14-20 -
Prymnesium parvum 28-45 25-33 22-38 1-2
Tetraselmis maculata 52 15 3 -
Porphyridium cruentum (red alga) 28-39 40-57 9-14< -

So what are the characteristics of algae?

1. Eukaryotic organisms:

As mentioned above, algae are eukaryotic organisms. The structure of a eukaryote (a typical plant cell) is shown in Figure 10.2a. Figure 10.2b shows the cell structure of a prokaryote, a bacterium, one of two groups of the prokaryotic life. Some do not consider the prokaryotes as true algae because they have a different structure, but most include these in the family of algae. There are labels for the different parts of the organisms, but I will not require you to know this information in detail - it is there so if you have a desire to look up more information, you can. Table 10.4 shows a comparison of both these types of cells.

Eukaryote schematic structure as described in the text. See link in caption for text description
Figure 10.2a: Eukaryote schematic structure.
Click for a text description of Figure 10.2a.
Nucleus (Nuclear pore, nuclear envelope, nucleolus), rough endoplasmic reticulum, ribosomes, smooth endoplasmic reticulum, small membranous vesicles, filamentous cytoskeleton, plasmodesmata, plasma membrane, cell wall, chloroplast (thylakoid membrane, starch grain), vacuole (vacuole, tonoplast), mitochondrion (mitochondria), peroxisome, cytoplasm, golgi vesicles, golgi body (golgi apparatus)
Prokaryote schematic structure. See link in caption for text description
Figure 10.2b: Prokaryote schematic structure.
Click for a text description of Figure 10.2b.
Nucleoid (circular DNA), Ribosomes, Plasmid, Cytoplasm, Cell wall, Capsule, Pili, Bacterial flagellum
Table 10.4: Comparison of eukaryotic cells and prokaryotic cells.
-- Eukaryotic cells Prokaryotic cells
Size Fairly large in size Very minute in size
Nuclear region Nuclear materials surrounded by membrane Nuclear region (nucleoid) not surrounded by nuclear membrane
Chromosome More than one chromosome present Single chromosome present
Membrane Membrane bound cell organelles are present Membrane bound cell organelles are absent

2. Live in moist environments

These organisms lack a waxy cuticle (the wax in terrestrial plants prevents water loss). There are a wide variety of growth environments for algae. The typical conditions for algae are moist, tropical regions, and they can grow in marine and fresh water. Freshwater algae grow in animals, aquatic plants, farm dams, sewage, lakes, rivers, lagoons, snow, mud/sand, and soil.

3. Contain chlorophyll

Algae are mostly photosynthetic, like plants. They have five kinds of photosynthetic pigments (chlorophyll a, b, c, d, and f) and have many accessory pigments that are blue, red, brown, and gold. Chlorophyll is a green pigment found in almost all plant algae and cyanobacteria. It absorbs light and transfers light energy to ATP (adenosine triphosphate).

So how are algae classified?

Algae belong to the Protista kingdom. Figure 10.3 shows a schematic of where Protista fits with other classifications of plantae, animalia, fungi, eubacteria, and archaebacteria.

Algae can also be classified based on chlorophyll content. The first type is chromista. These types of algae contain chlorophylls a and c, and examples of the algae include brown algae (golden brown algae), kelp, and diatoms. These materials are a division of Phaeophyta. These types have a habitat on rocky coasts in temperate zones or open seas (cold waters). The structure is multicellular and they can grow up to 50 m long.

kingdoms of life 3 initial branches. See link in caption for text description
Figure 10.3: Various kingdoms of life.
Click for a text description of Figure 10.3.

Eubacteria (unicellular, prokaryotic)

Archaebacteria (unicellular, prokaryotic)

Protista (eukaryotic, unicellular and multicellular)

    Plantae (multicellular, eukaryotic)

    Animalia (multicellular, eukaryotic)

    Fungi (multicellular, eukaryotic)

Credit: By Hull (Google) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
A phylogenetic tree example with different organisms on different branches of a cartoon tree
Figure 10.4: A phylogenetic tree.

Red algae are another type and contain chlorophyll a, such as marine algae (seaweed). These organisms are in the division of Rhodophyta, which has over 4000 species. These are some of the oldest eukaryotic organisms on Earth (there are 2 billion year old fossils). They are abundant in tropical, warm waters. They act as food and habitat for many marine species. The structure ranges from thin films to complex filamentous membranes. These algae have accessory pigments, and the phycobilins (red) mask chlorophyll a. Figure 10.5b shows various red algae. Dinoflagellates are unicellular protists, and these are associated with red tide and bioluminescence.

A pile of bright yellow kelp
Figure 10.5a: Kelp
Credit: BEEMS Module A3

Green algae contain chlorophylls a and b. They are in the division Chlorophyta. This is the largest and most diverse group of algae. It is found mostly in fresh waters and also on land (rocks, trees, and soil). The structures are single cells (Micrasterias), filamentous algae, colonies (Volvox), and leaf-like shape (Thalli). Terrestrial plants arose from a green algal ancestor. Both have the same photosynthetic pigments (chlorophyll a and b). Some green algae have a cell wall made of cellulose, similar to terrestrial plants. Figure 5c shows examples of green algae.

3 different algae’s & magnifications, 1 looks like a branch, 1 is zoomed in to look like branches made of rectangles & 1 is brown dots
Figure 10.5b: Red algae photo- and micrographs.
Credit: BEEMS Module A3
Examples of green algae: Chalmydomonas, Volvox, Ulothrix, Fristschiella, Ulva, Hydrodictyon
Figure 10.5c: Examples of green algae.
Credit: BEEMS Module A3