Spirulina: From Lake Texcoco to Mars, The Cow Has Met its Match
In 1325 the Aztecs founded Tenochtitlan—a truly monumental city that would anchor their growing empire. Built on an islet in the shallow western reaches of Lake Texcoco in the Mexican Valley (Tepētzallāntli Mēxihco), Tenochtitlan was a certified metropolis, and at its zenith would be the largest Pre-Columbian city (pre-Columbus, that is to say) in all the Americas; a Mesoamerican Manhattan of the Late Middle Ages.
From the surrounding waters of Lake Texcoco, the far-seeing Aztecs harvested the plentiful algae tecuitlatl as a central part of their culture’s vibrant diet. Today we recognize the stuff as an oxygen-producing, blue-green, world-rescuing cyanobacteria; spirulina. At a certain point in the 16th century, tecuitlatl (spirulina) disappears from the Aztec written record. Why? By then the European arrivistes had conquered the Aztecs, drained Lake Texcoco, and on the ruins of Tenochtitlan laid the foundations of Mexico City. Buh bye tecuitlatl. In the 1940s, French scientists rediscovered spirulina, and voila!
Cow Yields Right of Way to Single Bluish Cell
Spirulina today is a rock star in the “feed the world” discussion. Like quinoa, spirulina is even central to the “astronaut lunchbox” discussion, as the human race makes tentative plans to expand into the cosmos, exporting the Non-Fat Frappuccino With Extra Whipped Cream and other sorrows to the unsuspecting gill-folk of Neptune. But by then, spirulina will have fed the starving here on Earth. That’s step one.
Why is spirulina such a big deal when it comes to feeding the hungry? Let’s just start by saying that this blue-green wonder is 60% protein by weight. That’s a bit more than double the protein of red meat. Okay? It doesn’t matter if it’s grass fed; your cow can’t compete with this mossy single-cell superdude where protein is concerned. Your cow can’t compete. And contrary to the uncomfortable fact of our steak culture’s truly mind-boggling water waste, spirulina’s home in the world’s tropical and subtropical lakes brings water back into the wellness conversation; and in its own poetic way, brings us back to water.
Laundry List of Bam-Bam
Imagining 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), it can be a reach to get one’s head around all the largesse these little friends contain. First off, 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 15 other proteins, plus 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. There’s something about the sea... she seems to infuse her tiniest denizens with subaqueous power like nobody’s business. Good thing we’re related, huh?
What does this free-floating algal pal do for us? It lowers cholesterol (LDL, the bad cholesterol that plasters your artery walls and escorts you to the ICU), and spirulina’s phycocyanin 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, 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, and its ability to produce densely nutritive, protein-packed food in comparatively little space makes it one of several 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.
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 decorous, cyan-colored spirulina friends over a couple hundred million years changed all that, because these cyanobacteria in our seas were spending all those eons happily eating sunlight and turning it into energy. That was, of course, the world’s first epochal photosynthesis, and a global exhalation of undersea oxygen.
When the seas got too...airy...all that excess oxygen leaked upwards out of the seas to make Earth’s atmosphere; a massive bummer for the world’s anaerobic micro-life, which then massively died off in what is considered the Earth’s first Extinction Event. In the meantime, Spirulina’s bio-forming exhalations breathed into our world several long term, lung-related benefits; among them Bach, the Marx Brothers, John Cheever, Sinatra, Ray Davies, Marc Chagall, Michelangelo, 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, baby. Breathe.