Cyanobacteria: A Bio-resource
Cyanobacteria, also known as Cyanophyta, are a phylum of Gram-negative bacteria that obtain energy via photosynthesis. The name cyanobacteria come from their color, giving them their other name, "blue-green algae", though modern botanists restrict the term algae to eukaryotes and do not apply it to cyanobacteria, which are prokaryotes. They appear to have originated in freshwater or a terrestrial environment.
Many Proterozoic oil deposits are attributed to the activity of cyanobacteria. They are also important providers of nitrogen fertilizer in the cultivation of rice and beans. The cyanobacteria have also been tremendously important in shaping the course of evolution and ecological change throughout earth's history. The oxygen atmosphere that we depend on was generated by numerous cyanobacteria during the Archaean and Proterozoic Eras. Before that time, the atmosphere had a very different chemistry, unsuitable for life as we know it today.
The other great contribution of the cyanobacteria is the origin of plants. The chloroplast with which plants make food for themselves is actually a cyanobacterium living within the plant's cells. Sometime in the late Proterozoic or in the early Cambrian, cyanobacteria began to take up residence within certain eukaryote cells, making food for the eukaryote host in return for a home. This event is known as endosymbiosis, and is also the origin of the eukaryotic mitochondrion.
Because they are photosynthetic and aquatic, cyanobacteria are often called "blue-green algae". This name is convenient for talking about organisms in the water that make their own food, but does not reflect any relationship between the cyanobacteria and other organisms called algae. Cyanobacteria are relatives of the bacteria, not eukaryotes, and it is only the chloroplast in eukaryotic algae to which the cyanobacteria are related.
Though cyanobacteria do not have a great diversity of form, and though they are microscopic, they are rich in chemical diversity. Cyanobacteria get their name from the bluish pigment phycocyanin, which they use to capture light for photosynthesis. They also contain chlorophyll a, the same photosynthetic pigment that plants use. In fact the chloroplast in plants is a symbiotic cyanobacterium, taken up by a green algal ancestor of the plants sometime in the Precambrian. However, not all "blue-green" bacteria are blue; some common forms are red or pink from the pigment phycoerythrin.
These bacteria are often found growing on greenhouse glass, or around sinks and drains. The Red Sea gets its name from occasional blooms of a reddish species of Oscillatoria, and African flamingos get their pink color from eating Spirulina. Whatever their color, cyanobacteria are photosynthetic, and so can manufacture their own food. This has caused them to be dubbed "blue-green algae", though they have no relationship to any of the various eukayotic algae.
The term "algae" merely refers to any aquatic organisms capable of photosynthesis, and so applies to several groups. Cyanobacteria are very important organisms for the health and growth of many plants. They are one of very few groups of organisms that can convert inert atmospheric nitrogen into an organic form, such as nitrate or ammonia.
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