Pond Scum
Not what It Seems

Pond scum is both a blessing and a curse.   The problem is that it usually shows up where we least want it and in unmanageable volumes and is just plain slimy and smelly.  

In polite company most would refer to it as algae while reserving the green slime for a certain type of primitive life form lacking in morals or principles and whom we wouldn't want on our social calendar. 

The upside is that the algae contains incredible nutrients that give us humans some pretty remarkable health benefits. Luckily there are several companies in the nutritional supplement business that figured out how to extract those nutrients, reduce them to powder form and put them in nice antiseptic capsules or tablets.   Well, it sure beats trying to swallow a handful of gooey pond scum; algae, that is. 
Photo:  Blue-green algae growth in Florida pond

Blue-green algae (cyanobacteria), courtesy FL state Dept. of Environmental Protection

The nutrients from algae carry names like spirulina, chlorella and astaxanthin to name a few.   If the pond happens to be very large, like an ocean or the Sea of Japan, then pond scum all of sudden becomes seaweed.   Nevertheless, it is still algae although typically referred to as marine algae.

This isn't intended to be a primer on algae but a few paragraphs will be devoted to it so we know what it is we are talking about.   This page is intended to be a springboard to separate pages covering the specific types of algae that are normally sold as health supplements and to present the benefits of the more common ones.

What are we talking about here?

But first, just what is pond scum, or algae.   The word algae is the plural form of an incredible range of organisms that we usually associate with single-celled life forms having a nucleus and being able to use photosynthesis to create their own food from sunlight and carbon dioxide. 

Their waste is oxygen without which we humans would die off in a matter of minutes.   Algae can also be multi-celled and grow to enormous sizes such as the giant kelp seaweed that can grow to over 50 meters long.

Besides providing us with oxygen, if properly farmed and harvested, which many are already doing, it could help mitigate hunger and provide sorely needed nutrition throughout the world.  Take a look at the book shown below for more on this. 

The term algae is now reserved for eukaryotic pond scum, that is, organisms having a nucleus enclosed by a membrane.   What used to called blue-green algae is now recognized as bacteria in that it is prokaryotic, having no internal nucleus.

Nevertheless they also rely on photosynthesis to create their nutrients and expel oxygen as waste.  So blue-green algae is now known as cyanobacteria from the Greek word for blue. 

The number of different algae species is unknown but we do know that there are hundreds of thousands of them.  The Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. has over 300,000 different species cataloged in their collection.

Fertilizer and Farm Runoff

Farms are routinely villanized when their fertilizer residue is allowed to runoff into streams that feed larger tributaries.  The runoff eventually ends up in bodies of water such as the Chesapeake Bay where it creates dead zones from lack of oxygen in the water.

Aerial view of algae in Chesapeake tributaries, public domain by NOAA.gov

Photo: Aerial view of Chesapeake Bay tributaries showing extent of algae contamination, courtesy NOAA.gov.

What happens is that algae captures the nutrients from farm runoff, such as phosphorus and nitrogen, and combined with sunlight and warmth, spurs rapid growth which we refer to as algae blooms.  If that nutrient rich algae could be harvested, which it is in many countries, it could be used as fertilizer itself.

Algae gets a bad rap for sucking all the oxygen out of whatever pond or waterway it inhabits and killing off fish and other aquatic life that needs that oxygen to survive. 

The truth is a little different.  Remember, algae creates oxygen as its waste product.  It doesn't use oxygen.  While algae gets the blame for creating hypoxic, or dead zones, in bodies of water, it is the bacteria that feeds on dead algae that takes up the available oxygen. 

No matter, if we didn't have the algae bloom, we wouldn't have such a huge mass of dead, decaying pond scum to feed the bacteria and we wouldn't have large dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico or Chesapeake Bay.

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Today many uses have been found for algae including the aforementioned fertilizer.   A lot of research is underway to figure out how to efficiently use algae as fuel.  It is in wide use as stabilizers, thickeners, agar, pigments and plastics.   For our purposes, there is only one use to focus on and that is nutrition. 

The real interest in algae is the health benefits that flow from their nutrient content.  The theory is that the body will heal itself if it is given the right tools to do the job and those tools are nutrients.</p>
Photo:  Green algae and pond weed; food or fuel?

Floating mats of green algae and pondweed at North fork of Tred Avon River in Easton, MD; photo courtesy Jane Hawkey, IAN image library

Nutritional uses of algae range from eating it as a food, such as the seaweeds that are consumed in Asia and dietary supplements which are gaining in popularity in the U.S.  

Undoubtedly the use of pond scum in nutritional supplements will continue to grow as more information is made available on their benefits; assuming of course that the pharmaceutical industry and the FDA don't put the brakes on the use of algae for its health benefits.

The three major algae supplements to be covered are Spirulina, Chlorella and Astaxanthin. Just click on anyone of the three to get started.

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