Previous: Get the Music of the Microcosmos!
Next: How Do Microorganisms Pee?



View count:95,391
Last sync:2024-05-24 10:15
This video was sponsored by Skillshare. The first 1000 people to use the link will get a free trial of Skillshare Premium Membership:

As the search for alternative energy sources continues, scientists are looking to the microcosmos and wondering: Can we use algae oil to power our cars, our airplanes, and maybe even our spaceships?

Get our new merch:

Follow Journey to the Microcosmos:

Support the Microcosmos:

More from Jam’s Germs:

Hosted by Hank Green:

Music by Andrew Huang:

Journey to the Microcosmos is a Complexly production.
Find out more at

Stock video from:

Thanks to Skillshare for supporting this episode of Journey to the Microcosmos.

The first 1,000 people to click the link in the description can get a free trial of Skillshare’s Premium Membership. Do you ever look at a microbe doing something and think, “I wish I could do that?” I don’t know…maybe you don’t.

Maybe you don’t watch a vorticella casually grab food from a distance and think, “Wow, I wish I didn’t have to get up to get a snack.” And maybe you don’t watch a single-celled eukaryote enter a protective cyst and think, “Huh, wouldn’t it be neat if I could just chill out in a bubble of my own making when things get tough?” And that’s fine, it’s good to be content with a human existence. It’s got its perks: we get to think about things and talk about things and make things. And for millennia, we’ve turned all of our thoughts and conversations and creations into culture and societies, which have helped us better understand the world around us—whether through art or science.

We’ve learned about ourselves, about the stars above us, the rocks below us, and everything in between and beyond. And that includes microbes. We may not have known about microbes until a few centuries ago, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t made use of them before—whether that’s the yeast we used to make beer or the lactobacillus we used to ferment milk.

But apparently, there is more to life than food. And knowing that microbes exist has only led to more questions about how they exist, which has only led to more inspiration for how we can exist. Counting up all the ways that scientists and engineers have been looking to the microcosmos for inspiration would be an endless task.

So today we’re going to focus on one idea in particular: algae, and the possibility that one day, algae will fuel our cars, our airplanes, even our spaceships. “Algae” is a pretty broad category that roughly groups together all aquatic, photosynthetic organisms, whether they are tiny cyanobacteria or a large piece of kelp. But the algae we are most interested in today are single-celled eukaryotes, like Botryococcus braunii. If you want to find a living Botryococcus braunii, you can look in fresh and brackish waters.

And if you want to find fossilized Botryococcus, you can dig through Precambrian oil shales, where their remains point to another more remarkable fact: these tiny little algae are the largest biological contributor to crude oil in those shales. Now, it helps that when they’re alive, somewhere between 25-75% of Botryococcus’ dry weight can be made up of oils. So scientists have studied Botryococcus to see if we can use the micro algae to make those oils for us.

The search for a way to make biofuels has taken on many forms in many different places. In the 1970s, the United States Department of Energy started the Aquatic Species Program to explore the possibility of getting algae to make fuels. Of course, the process is more involved than just sitting back and letting algae make oil for us.

One microbe is just one microbe. Their real power happens when they are grown in large quantities. But algae do not come equipped with a manual on how to best grow them, nor do they tell you how to extract and refine the oil they produce.

Scientists have had to unravel and optimize those steps themselves. Fortunately, the simplicity of algae makes them well-suited for experimentation. But technology isn’t just the sum total of the research that’s made it possible.

It’s also the economics of how it fits into the world. And algae have proven much more challenging in that regard. In 2010, the estimated cost of a barrel of algae-based fuel was between $300-$2600, while petroleum was just $40-80.

Many of the challenges that create that discrepancy are biological. Botryococcus, for example, grows too slowly to make it work for us. And other species and techniques have had their own obstacles.

The Aquatic Species Program ended in the mid-1990s, and there have been a number of other companies that have tried and failed to bring algae-based biofuels to the market. But as is the case with so much of science, failure doesn’t end a story, it just becomes a part of another tale. The past few decades have been marked by major advances in the tools we use to study biology at the molecular and genetic level.

And those tools are still always improving, providing new ways to identify algae strains, decipher their genes, and engineer new pathways to maximize biofuel production. And even if we never figure out algae-based biofuels, we’re still living a world made all the richer because of algae. Because here’s the thing about biology: we’ve come a long way in how we understand it, but we are still really in our infancy.

We are finger-painting with biology, while nature sketches and colors masterpieces that will always be eons ahead of us. But that does not mean we won’t get better. In fact we have to get better, not just for the sake of progress, but for the sake of our survival—to make things that won’t just improve our lives in the immediate future, but will also leave our future selves without catastrophic problems.

We may figure out biofuels one day, but it will come with new questions and challenges about how they are made and how we consume. Human progress has always demonstrated both our ingenuity and short-sightedness. And the more we understand the microcosmos, the more we will seek to use it.

But to use it well, we have to understand how it fits with the world we have today, and the world that we want to exist tomorrow. Thank you for coming on this journey with us as we explore the unseen world that surrounds us. We’d like to also say thank you again to Skillshare for supporting this video.

Earlier, we mentioned using yeast to make beer, and along with many other things, this is a skill that you can learn on Skillshare. The class Beer Brewing Basics, hosted by Justin Trzaskos, is a course for beginners who want to learn how to make and bottle their own beer at home. In this course, Justin will walk you through the brewing process and help you make a simple IPA from a pre-measured beer brewing kit.

It’s beer, but it’s also science. Skillshare is an online learning community that offers membership with meaning. With so much to explore, real world projects to create, and the support of fellow-creatives, Skillshare empowers you to accomplish real growth.

It’s curated specifically for learning, meaning there are no ads to distract you, and they’re always launching new premium classes, so you can stay focused and follow wherever your creativity takes you. A Premium Membership will give you unlimited access, so you can join the classes and communities that are right for you. And an annual subscription to Skillshare is less than $10 a month.

If you’re one of the first 1,000 people to click the link in the description, you can get a free trial of Skillshare’s Premium Membership. We also wanted to let you know that we have some new Journey to the Microcosmos merchandise available at We have this new Brachionus pin as well as these Paramecium socks.

And the final thank you goes to all of the people whose names are on the screen right now. These are our Patreon patrons. The people who made it possible for us to return for our fourth season of Journey to the Microcosmos.

If you like what we do here and you’d like to help us continue to do more of it, head on over to If you want to see more from our master of microscopes James Weiss, check out Jam & Germs on Instagram. And if you want to see more from us, there’s always a subscribe button somewhere nearby.