Bluegreen “Algae,”   Pink Flamingos, Red Tides, (and Nonpolluting Buses)

12 Oct


Not many plants have a more diversified story than Cyanobacteria.  We know them in Florida as villians of “toxic algal bloom” news, featured even in the gubernatorial race.    That horror story is not my focus today.  Google will unleash that mess abundantly already.  Quickly, however, toxic “algae” blooms are not limited to the Florida Active Adult Lifestyle.  Ask the residents of Toledo who drink Lake Erie, or what’s left  of my home town, Wheeling, W.Va. where “a green paint spill” reported in the Ohio River turned out to be Cyanobacteria.  The problem is global, making it tough to point the finger of blame too ardently at any particular political entity, or demanding simplistic politicized “do something.”


Now hear this!…bluegreen “algae” are not algae.  They are Cyanobacteria. Even though the term “algae” is vague, Cyanobacteria are no more algae than I am.  They are large photosynthetic bacteria.

Cyanobacteria or similar paleo-germs are contenders to be the oldest life on Earth.  The globe is about 4.5 billion years old, with Cyanobacterial evidence extending back over 3.5 billion years.   Contrast that with humans, here for maybe 2 million years.    So then Cyanos are some 2000 times older than we are.  We curse them for polluting rivers, yet, looking back a few billenia, who kickstarted  the biological world with original oxygen?

BGA from fish tankCLOSE2

And even better, who makes the Flamingos pink?   With variation from species to species and from place to place, in a general sense Flamingo pink coloration owes mostly to pigments from Cyanobacteria, including the genus Spirulina on sale now in a health food store as a dietary aid.   I wonder if Spirulina over-consumption will give a ruddy glow.  (Just kidding.)

What about those pink Roseate Spoonbillls John and I witnessed today in Riverbend Park? They are more carnivorous than Flamingos, and their rosy pigments come from the little creatures they catch in their spoons, although ultimately the pink ink comes from plankton, presumably Cyanobacteria and perhaps also true Algae.  In the Spoonbill’s case, the path to pink may be complex.

CLICK HERE for quick peek at some Spoonbill Action!

Cyanobacteria have astounding grit.   They grow on trees, on rocks, on my back porch, on wet concrete, and mostly in salt and fresh water, where we may try to suppress them with shade.  Shade doesn’t work; some species cope by using cells called akinetes (AY-kuh-neats) able to sink and wait out bad times.

Many Cyanobacteria, especially planktonic species, including the Microcystis in toxic blooms,   have “air bladders.”  When the cell is near the sunny water surface photosynthesis there depletes buoyant carbon dioxide from the bladder and creates sinky heavy carbohydrates.  The cell thus loses buoyancy and sinks to deeper waters where there is less sun and more nutrients, such as phosphorus.   Down in the dark, the cell stocks up on nutrients, burns its heavy carbohydrates, generates carbon dioxide back into the bladder, and rises anew.  The yo-yo cycle is daily.


Lyngbya, with sheath

Fast growers demand much nitrogen.   Problem is, most plants can’t use nitrogen gas from the air.   Good thing we have Cyanobacteria with specialized cells called heterocysts to convert atmospheric nitrogen to ammonium fertilizer to their own benefit, to the benefit of plants that share their soil,  such as in Florida wet prairies, and to the benefit of many symbionts.

Cyanobacteria have more symbiotic relationships than you can shake an alga at.  They hook up with:  true algae, cycads, diatoms, ferns (including the floating fern Azolla used to fertilizer rice), flowering plants, fungi, hornworts, liverworts, marine worms, mosses (including Sphagnum), radiolarians, sea squirts, sponges by the dozen, and more, including partnerships awaiting discovery.  Oddly enough, if we shift our attention momentarily to the Red Tides befouling the beaches, those little agents of destruction are Dinoflagellate Algae, and guess what, Dinoflagellates and Cyanobacteria are known to have symbiotic relationships.   Every Cyanobacterial symbiosis has a story, but enough is enough for now.

Yet permit me one little example, the Southern-Hemisphere flowering plant genus Gunnera is unique so far as is known, having cyanobacteria living inside the host’s cells.   This growth-promoting intimacy is of interest in a hungry world, not merely because some Gunneras are food, but conceivably the little internal fertilizer generators could be extended to other crop plants.

Now for the surprise ending.  Not all Cyanobacteria are photosynthetic.  Recently in Spain some  turned up 2000 feet underground.   They get their energy from hydrogen just like a fuel cell.  Just think, the most primitive “plants”  of the deep past are demonstrating the most advanced energy form we know.


Photo by Donna Rogers


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11 responses to “Bluegreen “Algae,”   Pink Flamingos, Red Tides, (and Nonpolluting Buses)

  1. FlowerAlley

    October 13, 2018 at 8:11 am

    I wish I could take your class. I miss biology so much. This was a great post. Thanks.

    • George Rogers

      October 13, 2018 at 10:08 am

      Thanks Flower Alley! Some students would be very pleased to miss Biology.

      • FlowerAlley

        October 13, 2018 at 10:50 am

        Ha. I always loved school, especially biology. My daughter and her friends were here complaining about their sciences classes last night. I would love to go back. Maybe when my book is finished, I can take more classes.

  2. theshrubqueen

    October 13, 2018 at 8:42 am

    I agree with Becca! Added Senna, Rudbeckia and Lanceleaf Coreopsis to my garden this week.

    • George Rogers

      October 13, 2018 at 10:09 am

      Amelia, Can hardly wait to see the Lanceleaf Coreopsis, B.E. Susan, and Senna on a Monday.

  3. friedova

    October 13, 2018 at 4:15 pm

    Great synopsis of the Cyanobacteria story. I learned a lot. Thanks

    • George Rogers

      October 13, 2018 at 4:43 pm

      Thanks a ton—

  4. Linda Grashoff

    October 14, 2018 at 9:53 am

    I enjoyed this post a lot, George. Loved the kicker (for me) at the end about the chemotrophic cyanobacteria! And I found the video funny. It looks like the wood stork is letting the spoonbill do all the work of rustling up the grub.

    • George Rogers

      October 14, 2018 at 5:43 pm

      Thanks Linda, Agreed—the stork/spoonbill partnership is comical…and those deep cyanobacteria sound like just your cup of tea.

  5. leonorealaniz

    October 14, 2018 at 1:04 pm

    Another great read! George thanks for sending these. I have not printed YET the tree-hugging “lichen ? ” plant. It arrived well, and dried out and Iwetted it again. Its dry now, still quite 3D, meaning I have to wet and flat it to be pritable. Its anatomy and how the spikes hug the stem they grow on, is beautiful. A torn rotator cuff injury prevents me since month to print. But its still on one of my miidle burners, and once an images was coxed, you shall see it. L.

    • George Rogers

      October 14, 2018 at 5:45 pm

      Hi Leonore…October in Massachusetts would get anyone in the mood for nature printing. Hope that rotator cuff heals and lets you get back to normal activity…and so nice to hear from you!


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