Phycology: Definition, Facts & History

Instructor: Betsy Chesnutt

Betsy teaches college physics, biology, and engineering and has a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering

Under just about every body of water, there exists a secret world teeming with life. Much of this is in the form of algae. Phycology is the study of this algae, and in this lesson, you will learn all about it!

The Underwater World

The surface of a lake may look still and silent, but look just under the water, and you will find a whole world teeming with life. Tiny microscopic algae float through the water, while fish flit in and out of a forest of seaweed. Various forms of algae, including seaweed, form a critical part of all aquatic environments. They produce energy by photosynthesis, provide a food source for other organisms, and provide shelter and protection for animals like fish. The study of all types of algae, also known as phycology, is an important branch of biology since algae is such a vital part of aquatic ecosystems.

Phycology is the study of algae, including seaweed like this.
Phycology is the study of algae, including seaweed like this.

Facts about Phycology

Phycology is the science that studies all forms of algae, from very tiny microorganisms that float through the ocean to huge forests of seaweed. Understanding the biology of algae is incredibly important because algae does a lot more than most people realize!

Did you know that, without algae, we wouldn't have enough oxygen to breathe? Most forms of algae are photosynthetic, which means that they have the ability to produce energy from sunlight, just like plants that live on land do. As a byproduct of photosynthesis, algae produces oxygen. There is a lot of algae on Earth, so all that algae makes a whole lot of oxygen. In fact, about 70% of all the Earth's oxygen is made by algae!

Algae also provides the foundation of the aquatic food chain. Without it, all the larger animals in the world's lakes, rivers, and oceans would not be able to survive. That would, in turn, affect all animals living on land, including people. Lots of people throughout the world rely on algae as a food source as well.

These sushi rolls are wrapped with dried seaweed, a type of algae that is commonly eaten by people.
These sushi rolls are wrapped with dried seaweed, a type of algae that is commonly eaten by people.

Algae also can grow quite well in wastewater where other organisms would not be able to survive. By studying algae, phycologists have developed ways to clean up wastewater naturally by using algae. This helps us create clean water without the use of expensive and dangerous chemicals.

History of Phycology

Although people have known about algae and even eaten it for thousands of years, it has only been studied scientifically for about the last 300 years. In the late 1600s, the Dutch scientist Anton van Leeuwenhoek first used a microscope to see individual cells, and this discovery would have a big impact on phycology. For the first time, people could see microalgae and see the cell structure of larger forms of algae like seaweed.

About one hundred years later, in the early nineteenth century, a Swedish scientist named Carl Adolph Agardh would make even more important contributions to the new field of phycology. Agardh was the first person to try to develop a classification system for algae based on differences in reproductive characteristics. He identified and named many species of algae, and the University of Lund, where both he and his son, Jacob Georg Agardh, worked as phycologists is still the most important herbarium for algae that exists anywhere in the world.

The Swedish scientists Carl Adolph Agardh was one of the most important phycologists in history.
Carl Adolph Agardh was one of the most important phycologists in history.

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