Introduction

There are two main players that form the basis of nearly all global ecosystems in converting solar energy to biomass: algae and plants. While plants are omnipresent in public discussions dealing with such topics as climate change, bioreactors, biofuels and green biotechnology, the role and potential of algae is usually known only to experts. However, algae are present as primary producers in nearly all types of ecosystems, their versatile physiology allowing them an impressive range of adaption to aerial, terrestrial as well as aquatic habitats. As to its ecological impact, the most important group of algae is the phytoplankton, especially the nano- and picoplankton, which forms the basis of marine ecosystems. The phytoplankton produces about the same amount of oxygen as all land plants and is also involved in climatic processes by the production of volatile compounds and condensation nuclei for the formation of clouds.

Tapping the biotechnological potential of algae has a long tradition in human history (Spolaore et al., 2006). Algae, mainly kelps, are used as moisteners in soil and as fertilisers for human or animal food production. The ability of algae to absorb metals is used in biotreatment of contaminated soil. Microalgae are also working in self-supporting life systems as they are used in space travel. A plethora of algal products is on the market (Gantar and Svircev, 2008) obtained mainly from cyanobacterian genera Aphanizomenon and Arthrospira (Spirulina) and from chlorophycean genera Chlorella, Dunaliella and Scenedesmus. Algal products can be found in ice cream, puddings, dietary products and cosmetics. From algal cultures, polyunsaturated fatty acids are obtained along with antioxidants, suppressors of hypertension, vitamins and natural pigments such as carotenoids and phycobiliproteids. Microalgae also serve as food additives and are incorporated into the feed for aquacultures, farm animals and pets. Nonetheless, in comparison with plants, algae have played only a minor role in public awareness.

This may change now dramatically. The ever-increasing energy demand of world economy is recognised as a threat to the world climate owing to an increase in atmospheric CO2 (greenhouse gas) released by burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas). Therefore, there is a growing request for renewable energy sources that do not release CO2 or - at least - do not emit additional CO2 (Schiermeier et al., 2008). These are the classical sources of wind, water, solar, geothermal and nuclear energy, but also the hopeful newcomers, hydrogen technology and fusion power. However, although a lot of money has been and will be spent to exploit those alternative energy sources, it is obvious that in the near future they can cover only a small part of the world energy demand, either because they are more or less exploited (e.g., hydropower in Europe), their public acceptance is limited (e.g., nuclear fission power, wind plants) or financial resources are not as substantial as necessary (fusion power, hydrogen technology). What is more, it is obvious that in the near future most energy needed for transportation purposes will be used in combustion engines that require liquid fuels or gas. Therefore, it is desirable to try to replace fossil fuels by biofuels.

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