Algae, singular alga, members of a group of predominantly aquatic photosynthetic organisms of the kingdom Protista. Algae have many types of life cycles, and they range in size from microscopic Micromonas species to giant kelps that reach 60 metres (200 feet) in length. Their photosynthetic pigments are more varied than those of plants, and their cells have features not found among plants and animals. In addition to their ecological roles as oxygen producers and as the food base for almost all aquatic life, algae are economically important as a source of crude oil and as sources of food and a number of pharmaceutical and industrial products for humans. The taxonomy of algae is contentious and subject to rapid change as new molecular information is discovered. The study of algae is called phycology, and a person who studies algae is a phycologist.
In this article the algae are defined as eukaryotic (nucleus-bearing) organisms that photosynthesize but lack the specialized multicellular reproductive structures of plants, which always contain fertile gamete-producing cells surrounded by sterile cells. Algae also lack true roots, stems, and leaves—features they share with the avascular lower plants (e.g., mosses, liverworts, and hornworts). Additionally, the algae as treated in this article exclude the prokaryotic (nucleus-lacking) blue-green algae (cyanobacteria).
Beginning in the 1830s, algae were classified into major groups based on colour—e.g., red, brown, and green. The colours are a reflection of different chloroplast pigments, such as chlorophylls, carotenoids, and phycobiliproteins. Many more than three groups of pigments are recognized, and each class of algae shares a common set of pigment types distinct from those of all other groups.
The algae are not closely related in an evolutionary sense, and the phylogeny of the group remains to be delineated. Specific groups of algae share features with protozoa and fungi that, without the presence of chloroplasts and photosynthesis as delimiting features, make them difficult to distinguish from those organisms. Indeed, some algae appear to have a closer evolutionary relationship with the protozoa or fungi than they do with other algae.
There is a plausible fossil example in the mid-Ordovician Winneshiek shale.