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Imagine—if you can—the individual Spirulina cell in all its tiny glory. 40 of these puny power-punchers laid end-to-end would just about comprise the width of a human hair. But small doesn’t mean insignificant. Not by a long shot. These cyanobacteria are complex little deliverers of serious nutrition — with a possible future in outer space and a mission of mercy down here on hungry Earth. How? When? Why?
Blue Spirulina: Aztec Superstuff
In 1325 the Aztecs founded Tenochtitlan - a little settlement on a high plateau near Lake Texcoco in present-day Mexico. By the time the Spanish conquered Mesoamerica in 1521, it’s believed that Tenochtitlan had become the largest Pre-Columbian city (pre-Columbus, that is) in all the Americas. It was also one of the largest cities in the known world, with an estimated population of about—
“Excuse me. I’m here for the blue algae talk?”
Yes! I was just exp —
“There was a rumor that this article might have something to say about blue algae? IN SPACE? Is this the right place?”
Yeah - we’re almost to the part about … blue algae in space. (ruffles papers, clears throat and continues)
Spirulina and Mexico City
From the shallows of Lake Texcoco, the Aztecs harvested a plentiful algae. They called it tecuitlatl. Today we recognize the stuff as an oxygen-producing, blue-green, world-rescuing cyanobacteria. We call it Spirulina (or espirulina, depending on one's lingual disposition). The Aztecs were crazy about this stuff, and it became a central part of their thriving culture’s diet. Why?
Because before the advent of nutrition labs, test tubes, and clipboard-clutching researchers in smocks, ancient cultures simply tried everything they could lay their hands on and took careful note of what worked. Today we would call this field testing. And this tecuitlatl stuff really, really worked! It provided the Aztecs energy and seemed to help reduce the impact and duration of their more common illnesses.
Alas, at a certain point in the 16th century, tecuitlatl (spirulina) disappeared from the Aztec written record. Buh bye tecuitlatl. By then the European arrivistes had conquered the Aztecs, drained Lake Texcoco, and on that lakebed laid the foundations of Mexico City - today's fifth largest city in the world by population. When in the 1940s, French scientists rediscovered spirulina and its crazy nutritional superpowers, all heck broke loose. Voila!
Superfood Spirulina: The Cow is No Match
Spirulina today is a rock star in the “feed the world” discussion, and is even central to the “astronaut lunchbox” menu as the human race makes tentative plans to expand into the cosmos
“This is what I’ve been waiting to hear!”
Yeah, I know.
“Algae in space! Wow! But why. WHY?!”
Easy there, buddy. I’ll explain everything. You see (removes spectacles and dangles them in a vaguely professorial manner), spirulina is 60% protein by weight. That’s a bit more than double the protein of red meat. Okay? Whether grass fed, free-range, or raised on a steady diet of Wheaties™, your cow can’t compete with this mossy single-cell superdude where protein is concerned. Your cow can’t compete.
Hippocrates' super-complicated, 4th Century B.C. prescription for health? “Let thy food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”
Spriulina’s ability to produce densely nutritive, protein-packed food in comparatively little space makes it one of several proposed natural solutions to the world’s food crisis. And the “lots of nutritional bang from a small spatial footprint” thing makes spirulina the perfect space food for long-haul astronauts out to settle the starry frontier.
An experiment begun in 2021 will attempt to develop a stable spirulina strain for growing in space, breeding out any characteristics in the algae that might be adversely affected by such cosmic exotica as zero gravity, radiation, and other environmental factors common to space travel.
When the area you have allotted for interplanetary food production is limited to the inside of a cramped spaceship, you need something that yields crazy nourishment in a very small volume of space. Spirulina is exactly that.
Thanks to Spirulina, Earthlings will one day introduce the Non-Fat Frappuccino With Extra Whipped Cream (and other questionable Earthly exports) to the unsuspecting gill-folk of Neptune. By then, spirulina will have fed the hungry here on Earth.
What is Spirulina Good For? And Why is Spirulina Blue?
Alright, alright! Spirulina contains all three of the so-called “branched amino acids”; leucine, isoleucine and valine. You may recall that these are the sought-after muscle building proteins so beloved of barbell-and-bicep hobbyists.
But spirulina contains loads of vitamins like beta-carotene, riboflavin, thiamine, Vitamins C, B6, E and K, and a bunch of minerals like iron, magnesium, sodium, potassium….it’s a little crazy. Spirulina's bright blue presentation comes from C-phycocyanin, a light-harvesting pigment and metabolite that is being closely studied for its antioxidant, anti inflammatory and anticancer properties.
There’s something about the sea...she seems to infuse her tiniest citizens with oceanic life power like nobody’s business. Good thing we’re related, huh?
Nature’s goal is surviving (and procreating - a more delicate subject). Any wonder then that our planet’s aquatic cradle of life has spent a couple billion years perfecting the art of healing? Spirulina lowers cholesterol (LDL, the bad cholesterol that plasters your artery walls and escorts you to the ICU), and spirulina’s phycocyanin (an accessory pigment to chlorophyll, and, again, the natural stuff that gives spirulina its dazzling blue color) and β-carotene work antioxidant and anti-inflammatory magic, too.
Spirulina has been shown in clinical studies to inhibit cytokines, the cellular messengers whose over-anxious signals can lead to unnecessary and unhealthy “inflammations”, the kind that cascade into serious disorders—the COVID-19 virus and cancer among them.
In a study done on older adults, Spirulina even managed to mitigate anemia. This algal medicine chest has also demonstrated measurable positive effect on mental acuity and retention. Spirulina for hair growth? Yuh huh. This complex little life form is even gaining traction as a treatment for a patchy mane.
KOS and Spirulina. Good News for the Breathers.
There is an island off the coast of Greece (he proclaimed with worrisome irrelevance) whose name is KOS. It is the island birthplace of Hippocrates, ancient physician considered by many the “Father of Medicine”.
Spirulina is a superfood so packed with nutrients you are right to be suspicious.
But consider the couple billion years spirulina spent getting its nutraceutical act together. By the time humans arrived a scant 300,000 years ago, spirulina—waiting with all the patience one would expect from an algae, was ready to jump in and lend us a world-altering hand.
Perhaps most endearingly, Spirulina is one of the micro-critters responsible for the Great Oxygenation Event. You see, 2.5 billion years ago the few things that were alive in our largely unpleasant oceans were creepy anaerobic doodads that didn’t need or want oxygen to live. The slow buildup of our cyan-colored spirulina friends over a couple hundred million years changed all that.
These cyanobacteria in our seas had spent eons happily eating sunlight and photosynthesizing it into energy. One day they simply had to exhale. And what a momentous exhalation it was. It was a global exhalation of undersea oxygen.
When all that excess oxygen leaked upwards out of the seas to make Earth’s atmosphere, it was a massive bummer for the world’s anaerobic micro-life, which then massively died off in what is considered Earth’s first Extinction Event. But what good news for the breathers on this planet!
Spirulina’s bio-forming exhalations breathed into our world several long term, lung-related benefits; among them Bach, the Marx Brothers, John Cheever, Billie Eilish, Sinatra, Post Malone, Andreea Bălan, Ray Davies, Marc Chagall, Michelangelo, The Weeknd, Ella Fitzgerald....well, it’s a long list.
So next time Stan Getz is on your stereo, blowing his heart-rending sax throughout that spine-tingling orchestration of “What’s New”, thank your very old chum Spirulina.
And breathe, fellow Earthling. Breathe.