Genene Tefera, DVM, PhD
Microbial Genetic Resources Department, Institute of Biodiversity Conservation
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, January, 2009
The name spirulina comes from a Latin word meaning tiny spiral. Spirulina is microscopic, spiral-shaped, vegetable bacteria.
Spirulina is a genus of the phylum Cyanobacteria which are classified as bacteria. Even though it is single-celled attaining sizes of 0.5 millimeters in length, which makes some individual spirulina cells visible to the naked eye. There are several species of spirulina. The ones most commonly used in nutritional supplements are Spirulina platensis and Spirulina maxima.
Spirulina has been on the planet over 3 billion years. It still grows wild and abundantly around the world in very alkaline, mineral-rich, largely pollution-free, soda lakes. Spirulina is not sea bacteria. However, the fresh-water ponds and lakes spirulina favors are notably more alkaline, in the range of 8 to 11 pH, than ordinary lakes and cannot sustain any other forms of microorganisms. This water is too salty (up to pH 11) to support fish, to use for growing terrestrial crops or for drinking. But it is perfect for growing Spirulina. Spirulina thrives in very warm waters of 32 to 45 0C (approximately 85 to 112 0F), and has even survived in temperatures of 60 0C (140 0F). Certain desert-adapted species will survive when their pond habitats evaporate in the intense sun, drying to a dormant state on rocks as hot as 70 0C (160 0F). In this dormant condition, the naturally blue-green bacteria turn a frosted white and develop a sweet flavor as its 71% protein structure is transformed into polysaccharide sugars by the heat. In fact, the hotter it gets and the more the mineral salts concentrate as water evaporates the faster and more prolifically Spirulina grows!
Ironically and significantly, the most fertile valley of soda lakes with heavy Spirulina growth today lies in Africa. In East Africa, the Great Rift Valley begins in Ethiopia and runs vertically through desert wastelands for hundreds of miles linking Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Botswana. This valley floor is lined with several large soda lakes. These lakes are large basins concentrating huge quantities of mineral salts leached from the volcanic soils by rainwater runoff over millennia. Along with the intense heat and sunlight of the area, these lakes provide the perfect growing conditions for Spirulina.
In Ethiopia, three soda lakes, Lake Aranguadi (Hadho) (approx. 3 km south of Debre Zeit), Lake Chitu (approx. 37 Km west of Shashemene near by Senbete Shala and Lake Shala (approx. 40 km West of Shashemene near by Senbete Shala) at together cover over 3 square miles. All three are rich with spirulina. But Kenya and Chad are the spirulina "bread baskets". Lake Bogoria (11+ square miles)*, Lake Elementita (7+ square miles), Lake Magadi (29+ square miles), Lake Nakuru (30 square miles), and Lake Rudolf (2,325 square miles), all contain quantities of spirulina
Huge Lake Chad, which is situated both in Chad and Nigeria, contains spirulina in one section of the lake that comprises approximately one-fourth of its surface area, or 1,600 square miles. Based on observed growth rates of 10 grams per square meter per day, Scientists of the Microalgae International Union calculate that Lake Bogoria alone is capable of producing continuously over 290 tons of dry spirulina per day.
On survival rations, 30 grams per person per day, that is enough spirulina to feed over 9 1/2 million people! Surely, enough Spirulina can be harvested, dried and transported from politically stable Kenya alone to feed all the starving people of Africa. In fact, no one ever needs to go hungry again, provided there is the cooperation, funding, and technology to end world hunger.
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