Phycology: Everything You Need To Know

In simple terms, phycology is a school of botany concerned with the study of algae. A branch of life science, phycology can also be referred to as algology in some circles, and remains an important scientific field in many ways.

Phycology: Everything You Need To Know

Whilst algae might seem inconsequential, their size can range from the microscopic to the large underwater shrubbery, and they account for a number of important and useful applications.  

The discovery and continual study of all the different types and species have led to great leaps, both financially, scientifically, medically, agriculturally, and gastronomically. 

But what exactly is phycology, and what does it entail? 


The term phycology takes its name from the Greek word phykos, meaning “seaweed”. 

This could be specifically referring to a red type of algae or seaweed, or the red dye the Ancient Greeks would produce from it. 


When it comes to discussing the history of phycology, there are two ways we can categorize understanding: knowledge and science. 

Seaweed and algae were known by the Ancient Greeks, Ancient Romans, and even utilized by the Ancient Chinese in medicines and other applications. 

However, it wasn’t until the 18th century that scientific experimentations began, focusing on categorizing the various genuses and species, and conducting scientific investigations into their wider application and purpose. 

The 1700s

This began with Swedish naturalist Pehr Osbeck, who categorized and described the species of algae known as Ecklonia Maxima (then known as Fucus Maximus) in 1757.

This was built upon in the descriptive studies conducted by English botanist Dawson Turner and Swedish botanist Carl Adolph Agardh. 

The 1800s

Real progress in the field really got under way in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when German botanist Friedrich Traugott Kutzing continued their descriptive work.

Categorizing more species of algae and allowing for wider identification, comparison and contrast between the identified groups. 

The Japanese botanist Kintaro Okamura furthered research from 1889 onwards, when he provided accurate and detailed descriptions and classifications for Japanese coastal algae, as well as providing understandable analyses of their distribution around the country. 

The 1900s

Effective cataloging only really began in 1902, when Edward Arthur Lionel Batters’ A Catalog of the British Marine Algae was published, collating records, providing extensive mapping and distribution patterns, and allowing the slow development of identification keys. 

In the early 20th century, the isogamy of algae was finally recorded and understood.

This laid out the foundation for the understanding of the sexual reproduction patterns of algae, and allowing us to better understand the conditions under which they can grow and be distributed. 

This was consolidated in the 1935 and 1945 volumes produced by British botanist Felix Eugen Fritsch. 

In her 1904 publication The Corallinaceae of the Siboga Expedition, Anna Webber Van-Bosse, a prominent Dutch phycologist, describes several previously undiscovered species of sponges and algae. 

There were several advances in identification keys during the early to mid 1900s, beginning with Lily Newton’s 1931 Handbook, and followed by Mary Parke’s Manx Algae (1931) and her 1953 follow up A Preliminary Check-List of British Marine Algae.

Which led to the development and wide use of area checklists of algae species and their distribution. 

The Characteristics Of Algae

To the layman, algae might seem like it would all be the same. However, this isn’t the truth, and there are in fact numerous variations across the globe. 

But what are their defining characteristics? 

Generally speaking, algae are either multicellular or unicellular. They lack a well defined form, and unlike terrestrial plants, they do not need stems, leaves, or roots. 

Their tissue is relatively indifferent from one another, and their cells generally consist of cellulosic cell walls, and have highly photosynthetic chlorophyll. 

They are generally self contained organisms, although they do sometimes form symbiotic relationships with other living creatures and plants. 

Some examples include sea turtles and most species of whale, which gather algae on their backs, which in turn attracts shoals of fish to their wake. 

There are also sexual characteristics to algae, as there are with all living organisms. Whether they are multicellular or unicellular, their sex organs are one celled, with multiple cells being housed within one protective membrane. 

Both sexual and asexual reproduction are possible in algae. Asexual reproduction is faciliated by the creation of spores. 

However, unlike animals, algae has no embryonic development, meaning they can multiply at a much faster rate than most other organisms. 

The Importance Of Algae

Despite lacking the typical roots, stems, or leaves commonly associated with terrestrial plant life, algae play important roles in as photosynthetic plants in freshwater, and are major sources of food for a lot of marine animals. 

Ecological Importance

The photosynthesis of algae is thought to be responsible for over half of the world’s oxygen, making them incredibly important to our long term comfort and survival. 

Oxygen is released when they convert carbon dioxide to biomass, and whilst they are generally bottom feeders, their role as food allows them to be passed up the food chain as they convert solar energy. 

When algae die they are generally then used as food for microorganisms like bacteria and fungi. 

The larger forms of algae are often homes for small sea organisms, and as such provide a wider importance in the food chain. The presence of algae, at least in this sense, can also be useful to determine how contaminated a water supply is. 

Economical Importance

In terms of a money-making tool, algae is used in the farming industry as a source of animal feed and fertilizer. It is also used in the healthy production of soil and can prevent natural soil erosion. 

Algae such as Nori is used in food, especially in Japan where it is used in the preparation of sushi. Similarly, agar, a form of algae, is also used to make gelatin, widely used in many foods. 

It is also used in the production of toothpaste as a natural thickening agent. 

They are also used in cosmetics, the production of biofuel, the production of bioplastics, the production of pharmaceuticals, vitamins and nutraceuticals, and plant nutrients for gardening. 

Health Benefits Of Algae

Health Benefits Of Algae

Brown algae in particular has a series of important health applications, and is used in varying forms to treat certain illnesses. 

These can include cancer, fibromyalgia, arthritis, stress, the aiding of weight loss, treating heart disease, high cholesterol, and much more.  

Algae, especially blue green algae, are rich in vitamins and helpful minerals, including calcium, magnesium, and iron, and are an excellent source of trace minerals lacking in modern diets. 

The Classification Of Algae

When classifying algae, there are several suffixes relating to specific things. These include: phyta for division, phyceae for class, phycideae for sub–class, ales for order, inales for suborder, aceae for family, and oidease for subfamily. 

The Four Main Groups

Within phycology, there are also four main groups used for classification.

The first group is called the prokaryotic algae, and this is made up of cyanobacteria, more closely related to bacteria than algae.

However, they are classified under blue-green algae, and are characterized by their ability to carry out photosynthesis through the use of chlorophyll A, B and D. 

The second group is archaepastida, which is made up of three phyla that include: 

  • Glaucophyta – these are a small group of single celled algae found in freshwater. They are capable of photosynthesis, which occurs in a modified endosymbiotic cyanobacteria. 
  • Rhodophyta – this is a type of red algae that boasts over 7000 species (identified). The photosynthetic pigments are stored and arranged in the phycobilisomes. These are one of the oldest species of algae in this group. 
  • Chlorophyta – these are a species of green algae that contain chlorophylls B and C. These more closely resemble seaweed, and are referred to as such. 

The third group consists of chlorophyll of algae surrounded by a single chloroplast “E.R” membrane. These include: 

  • Euglenophyta – these are freshwater flagellates (a cell or organism with more than one whip-like appendage).  
  • Dinophyta – this is a green algae found in seawater and occasionally in freshwater. They feed on small bacteria, and have chlorophylls A and B. 
  • Apicomplexa – These generally consist of parasitic alveolates, and possess a “pitted” texture similar to a honeycomb. Their unique structure allows them to penetrate and infect a host. 

The fourth group is referred to as chromista, and is mainly composed of unique algae whose chloroplasts are protected by two protective membranes. 

When compared to other groups, this one contains the most subgroups, and these include: 

  • Cryptophyta – commonly found in freshwater, and possess a flat shape with an anterior groove. 
  • Heterokontophyta – these are known as heterokonts and have some of the widest size variations on this list. This can range from the unicellular to the multicellular, making them incredibly diverse. 
  • Prymnesiophyte – these are characterized by having two fin-like flagella which aid their movement. They are also coated in a membranous fucoxanthin, which resembles scales. 
  • Phaeophyceae – These are brown algae with a multicellular makeup. They occur in the cold water of the northern hemisphere. 
  • Chrysophyceae – golden brown algae found typically in freshwater. 
  • Phaeothamniophyceae – these are also golden brown in color, and possess a unique “filamentous” shape. 
  • Synurophyceae – these are found in freshwater and have four protective membranes. 
  • Xanthophyceae – these are yellow-green, and found in freshwater environments. They have a single flagella to aid movement. 
  • Eustigmatophyceae – These are unicellular and can be found in a multitude of different habitats. 
  • Pinguiophyceae – these are unicellular organisms found in marine environments. 
  • Bacillariophyceae – these can be found in soil and oceans. 
  • Dictyochophyceae – these are small in number, have one flagella, and are commonly found in marine environments. 
  • Bolidophyceae – these are aquatic species with an angular flagella. 
  • Pelagophyceae – these are single celled heterokont algae, and are mainly found in marine environments. 

Negative Impact of Algae

Of course, as with anything, there are negative aspects to algae and the impact it has on the environment. 

The main one is the challenge they provide for water systems by causing blockages. This can happen in manmade and natural water channels, and can cause major problems if not treated. They can also produce toxins, causing further harm in certain circumstances. 

Certain cytotoxins produced by cyanobacteria can cause abdominal pain, as well as diarrhea and vomiting if consumed. 

It can also cause erosion to certain natural infrastructures and habitats. 

Final Thoughts

And there we have it, everything you need to know about algae and the study of phycology. 

If there is one thing to take away from this article, it is the absolute importance of algae, not only to their own individual ecosystems, but also to our general wellbeing and longevity as humans. 

Who would have thought something so small could prove so mighty? 

Jennifer Dawkins

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