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Good Reads  Botany  Non-Vascular Plants  Algae

Bloom From Food to Fuel, the Epic Story of How Algae Can Save Our World

Popular Science
By: Ruth Kassinger(Author)
380 pages, b/w illustrations
An ode to pond scum, Bloom is an incredibly accessible and fascinating book on the humble alga and its biotechnological potential. Longlisted for The Wainwright Prize 2020 for Writing on Global Conservation.
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Average customer review
  • Bloom ISBN: 9781783964413 Hardback Jul 2019 Usually dispatched within 1 week
Price: £16.99
About this book Customer reviews Biography Related titles

About this book

Say "algae" and most people think of pond scum. What they don't know is that without algae, none of us would exist.

There are as many algae on Earth as stars in the universe, and they have been essential to life on our planet for eons. Algae created the Earth we know today, with its oxygen-rich atmosphere, abundant oceans, and coral reefs. Crude oil is made of dead algae, and algae are the ancestors of all plants.

Today, seaweed production is a multi-billion dollar industry, with algae hard at work to make your sushi, beer, paint, toothpaste, shampoo and so much more. Delving into science and history, Ruth Kassinger takes readers on a global journey from the seaweed farmers in South Korea and laverbread champions in Pembrokeshire. Everywhere, she talks to algae innovators working toward a sustainable future: to scientists using it to clean the dead zones in our waterways, to the entrepreneurs fighting to bring algae fuel and plastics to market.

Full of surprising science and history, and even a few recipes, Bloom will overturn everything you thought you knew about algae. As Ruth Kassinger concludes "They created us, sustain us, and if we're both clever and wise, they can help save us."

Please note that this book has been published in the US as Slime: How Algae Created Us, Plague Us, and Just Might Save Us.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • An ode to pond scum
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 25 Nov 2019 Written for Hardback

    In Algae We Trust. That might just as well have been the subtitle of this book. In Slime (published in the UK as Bloom, but I read the US version), author Ruth Kassinger writes of the many fundamental, often eye-opening roles that algae play in our ecosystems. But she also travels around the world to talk to farmers, scientists, and inventors. From food to plastics to fuel, entrepreneurs are discovering that these little green powerhouses hold immense biotechnological potential.

    From the above, you will have already gathered that this book covers a myriad of topics. Kassinger has helpfully grouped her 27 short and very readable chapters into four sections. These deal with evolution and early life, algae as food, algae as fuel and feedstock, and the role of algae in a changing climate. Kassinger writes in a casual style without dumbing things down, and when she cracks a joke, they are actually clever. The truth is, she does not have to work hard to sell the book to her reader – it contains so many eye-opening facts and inspiring stories of biotech initiatives that it sells itself. That, and there are a handful of lovely illustrations by Shanthi Chandrasekar.

    I took great interest in the first section on early life, even though, as an evolutionary biologist, I am familiar with many details. For example, the first fossils (stromatolites) left by cyanobacteria (blue-green algae, see Cradle of Life); the Great Oxygenation Event and the rusting of Earth’s iron reserves (see Oxygen: A Four Billion Year History, Oxygen: The Molecule that Made the World, and Life's Engines); or the first instance of endosymbiosis that turned a strain of cyanobacteria into chloroplasts, the photosynthesising powerhouses found in plant cells (see One Plus One Equals One). All of these amazing events have been covered extensively elsewhere, though Kassinger relays them with great ease. Amazingly, cyanobacteria have also been implicated in causing the Huronian Glaciation that saw the planet frozen solid between approximately 2.4 to 2.1 billion years ago. (Actually, I did know this from reviewing The Oceans, but I had forgotten about it.)

    The other three sections of the book contained much that was new to me. Archaeologists argue that humans, in pursuit of seafood, stuck to coastlines as they migrated around the planet (see also my review of Fishing: How the Sea Fed Civilization), and Kassinger highlights that it might very well have been the nutrition found in algae that stimulated brain expansion during our evolution. She explores the importance of algae in Japanese cuisine and visits a South-Korean algae farm, as this country has become the world’s leading exporter. Interestingly, there is also a strong tradition in Wales to collect algae as a cooking ingredient.

    What I really appreciated here was Kassinger’s even-handedness. So, while she visits a wild-seaweed harvester who tries to run a business in harmony with nature, she also takes a look at a commercial aquaculture operation. And while she highlights the fantastical nutritional value of algae, she is sceptical of overblown claims by producers and cautious of supposed health benefits of, for example, omega-3 oils (see also The Omega Principle). And she is outright scathing – deservedly so – of wellness gurus who ignore scientific evidence to the contrary by claiming that carrageenan, a polysaccharide compound in algae, is unsafe for consumption.

    Beyond food, algae can reduce the need for antibiotics in animal husbandry, be used as agricultural fertilizer, or – excitingly – be turned into oil to make plastics or fuel. It was a chance visit to a startup biofuel company that got Kassinger started on this book in the first place, so she spends quite a bit of time going into the particulars of oil. Although biofuel has gotten a bad reputation for the land and water requirements of crops such as corn, algae culture does not need premium agricultural land or freshwater. As with all these novel applications, a lot of research and development is still needed to optimise production processes, though recent gene-editing tools such as CRISPR could greatly help (see also A Crack in Creation).

    It is hard not to get starry-eyed about the possibilities, but I think that Kassinger gives a balanced account. For instance, her explanation of why electric cars are not necessarily better for the environment shows an author who acknowledges subtleties and avoids hype. (After all, it depends on where the energy came from that you charge their batteries with.) But even taking a cautious stance, algae do seem to hold great potential for producing the different kinds of fuel needed by cars, aeroplanes, and ships. As she highlights, it is unfortunate that the fracking boom has knocked the bottom out of oil prices, bankrupting some promising startup ventures working on algae fuel. Others have shifted their business to making oils used in the foods and cosmetics industry, including alternatives to the dreaded palm oil.

    In the book’s final section Kassinger considers algae in coral reefs and the threat of climate change, algae naturally mopping up excess nitrogen and phosphorus, the problem of harmful algal blooms, and the possible role of algae in geoengineering to draw down atmospheric carbon dioxide (see also The Planet Remade).

    Kassinger is an enthusiastic yet even-handed cheerleader for algae. Despite the huge range of topics covered her book is well organised. What really makes it a joy to read are her deft explanations – whether it is the difference between pro- and prebiotics, or the finer details of oil production. Even when she writes on a topic I am more familiar with, such as the atmospheric chemistry behind the Great Oxygenation Event, she shows an enviable knack for writing plainly. An ode to pond scum, this book is an eye-opener that ensures you will never look at algae the same way again.
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Ruth Kassinger is the author of Paradise Under Glass and A Garden of Marvels, as well as a number of award-winning science and history books for young adults. She has written for the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, Health magazine, National Geographic Explorer, and other publications. She is a frequent speaker at conservatories, arboretums, and garden clubs, and has been featured on radio shows and Voice of America.

Popular Science
By: Ruth Kassinger(Author)
380 pages, b/w illustrations
An ode to pond scum, Bloom is an incredibly accessible and fascinating book on the humble alga and its biotechnological potential. Longlisted for The Wainwright Prize 2020 for Writing on Global Conservation.
Media reviews

- A New York Times New and Noteworthy Title
- A Science Friday Best Book of the Summer

"[...] The world's algae are quite probably responsible for capturing more energy than flowering plants, yet their role is often unappreciated and ignored. Ruth Kassinger remedies this ignorance with an approachable, well-written and easy to understand account of the biological and commercial importance of algae. [...] Only a very experienced journalist could have attempted and succeeded in producing such a comprehensive and readable text. This book brings science to a general audience and will also prove useful as a teaching aid for early-stage learners in biology and its applications."
– Professor Geoffrey R. Dixon FRSB, The Biologist 66(5) October/November 2019

"Algae are among the earth's oldest life-forms, pervasive in everything from pond scum to crude oil. Kassinger explains their history and biology, and makes a persuasive case for their future importance."
New York Times Book Review

"No organisms are more important to life as we know it than algae. In Slime, Ruth Kassinger gives this under-appreciated group its due. The result is engaging, occasionally icky, and deeply informative."
– Elizabeth Kolbert, New York Times-bestselling author of the Pulitzer Prize-winner The Sixth Extinction

"In spite of having studied algae for more than 30 years, I learnt much from Slime [...] Compelling [...] There is something for everyone, from committed phycologists to people who hitherto (but hopefully no longer) regarded algae as an inconvenience or worse. Blanket weed may never seem the same again."
– Christopher Howe, Nature 570(7759), June 2019

"Slime illustrates the important role algae have played in the world [...] Overall, Slime gives a distinct view into these underappreciated organisms and demonstrates our intertwined history with algae. Hopefully, it will help readers see algae in a different light."
Science Magazine

"Fascinating and relevant [...] As Kassinger finds unique nuggets within algae's backstory and possible future, she unravels amazing, microscopic details of this vital resource [...] Where it gets really interesting is her detailed explanation of the large role algae played in the complicated, multistep process of human evolution, supplementing our ancestors' diets with iodine and the omega-3 oil DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), both essential ingredients for developing larger brains. And it has continued to serve as a nutritious food source for many cultures ever since [...] Kassinger has penned a wondrous story of this multifaceted, often misunderstood microorganism whose existence is vital to our own."
BookPage, starred review

"We often look for big solutions, but the reality is that the smallest things often offer hope. This globetrotting book showcases the 'algae innovators' (the phrase of the month) exploring what we can learn from these often-ignored plants."

"A book full of delights and surprises. Algae are the hidden rulers of our world, giving us oxygen, food, and energy. This is a beautiful evocation of the many ways that our past and future are entangled in their emerald strands."
– David George Haskell, author of The Songs of Trees and Pulitzer Prize-finalist The Forest Unseen

"Deep and enlightening [...] Readers will learn more about algae than they ever imagined (and relish every minute of it). Comparisons to Mary Roach and Susan Orlean are well-deserved, and Kassinger's erudite and wide-ranging approach should entice readers with a wide range of interests, from food to fashion, bioengineering, marine biology, farming, and general fascination with the wonders of nature. Gardeners will welcome Kassinger's latest, and everyone else will feel lucky to discover this winsome writer."
Booklist, starred review

"A fun and fascinating deep dive into the natural history, current uses, and vast potential of algae [...] Accessible and enthralling [...] Kassinger delivers the powerful and optimistic message that slime just may be our savior [...] Thorough but not dense, informative but never boring – a delight from start to finish."
Kirkus, starred review

"In chirpy prose chock-full of homespun metaphors [...] Kassinger turns an obscure subject into delightful reading [...] Even readers who never expected to enjoy a book about slime will find this an informative and charming primer to 'the world's most powerful engines.'"
Publishers Weekly

"Slime is a revelation! Algae has the power to cool the planet, replace plastics, fuel vehicles, and feed the world. This visionary book belongs in the hands of every policy maker, business leader, and engaged citizen looking for answers to our most pressing problems. It also happens to be a delightful read in the tradition of Susan Orlean, Mary Roach, and Michael Pollan. Ruth Kassinger turns a reporter's eye to the natural world and finds an epic narrative there, populated by dedicated scientists, intrepid chefs, and starry-eyed visionaries."
– Amy Stewart, New York Times-bestselling author of The Drunken Botanist and the Kopp Sisters novels

"Ruth Kassinger is a witty and affable guide throughout this globetrotting celebration of an overlooked life form. Reading Slime will convince you that algae deserve our respect, and even our gratitude – they are ancient, fascinating, and essential to life as we know it."
– Thor Hanson, author of Buzz, The Triumph of Seeds, and Feathers

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