What pops into your mind when you hear the word algae? This is the question posed by author Ruth Kassinger (Paradise Under Glass) in her latest book, Slime: How Algae Created Us, Plague Us, and Just Might Save Us.
If you’re like most people, it will conjure up images of icky green goo, pond scum or seaweed. But Kassinger will change your mind, taking an obscure topic that might seem boring, perhaps even gross, and making it fascinating and relevant. In her exhaustive research of the slimy microorganism, she crisscrosses the globe, interviewing people from all walks of life who have knowledge of and experience with algae, including phycologists (scientists who study algae), algae farmers, scuba instructors and even culinary experts. As Kassinger finds unique nuggets within algae’s backstory and possible future, she unravels amazing, microscopic details of this vital resource.
Going way back to the single-celled organisms of Earth’s early days, she explains first how they evolved into microalgae and then how they eventually formed multicelled macroalgae, which made the jump to land-based fungi and lichen. But where it gets really interesting is her detailed explanation of the large role algae played in the complicated, multistep process of human evolution, supplementing our ancestors’ diets with iodine and the omega-3 oil DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), both essential ingredients for developing larger brains. And it has continued to serve as a nutritious food source for many cultures ever since.
Kassinger describes these and the dozens of other diverse uses for algae (some still in discovery stages), including medicine, sunscreen, toothpaste, paint, dynamite, running shoes, plastics and even fuel. However, she warns against taking this natural wonder for granted. Warming oceans and fertilizer and manure runoff from farms lead to algal blooms—toxic dead zones “unable to sustain marine life.”
Kassinger has penned a wondrous story of this multifaceted, often misunderstood microorganism whose existence is vital to our own. Algae’s numerous uses, benefits and even its potential harm provide a wake-up call for humanity to find more ecological solutions to reverse climate change and help support our growing population. As Kassinger writes, “Algae. They created us, sustain us, and if we’re clever and wise, they can help save us.”
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read Ruth Kassinger’s top 12 most interesting slime facts.