Algae fuel, food and waste disposal will reduce atmospheric CO2

Accumulated by Ken Wear from 8/2/07

Knowledge begins with classifying things. In the microscopic and sub-microscopic worlds there may be orgnizations of matter between the living and the non-living; cataloging is a daunting task. Among living organisms, they are either plant (flora) or animal (fauna). Among the simplest flora are the chlorophyll-bearing algae, which convert sunlight into stored energy; absence of chlorophyll (fungi and bacteria) makes them dependent on a host (parasitic) as their energy source.

Most algae are water-borne, either flowing fresh water as in rivers, standing fresh water as in lakes, brackish water where fresh and sea water mix, or in the ocean. Algae have no true leaves, stems or roots; some are single-celled but some are elaborate massive plants comparable in size with flowering plants. Most are eukaryotic (cells with nuclei) as opposed to the simpler prokaryotic cell structure. For classification they are divided between fresh and salt (marine) water, where brackish water is taken as marine. As a general rule, fresh water algae are microscopic and marine algae are macroscopic and readily recognizable when found in situ or on the beach.

As with hemp, with its hundreds of strains, it is necessary to know the characteristics of a particular strain if we are to know if it can be cultivated to become a practical source of energy. Such things as habitat, temperature, rapidity of reproduction, attachment or free-floating, oil production, aggressiveness. Once harvested it seems likely extraction of oils and conversion to biodiesel would be nearly identical for all microscopic strains.

8-28-07 I was naive when I undertook this page. Rather than two kingdoms of life, plant and animal, there are now recognized forms of life that enjoy characteristics of both, numbering 5 or 8 kingdoms depending on which school you wish to follow. The Whitaker 5-kingdom classification consists of:
1) monera (prokaryotic cells, which have poorly organized nuclei)
2) protista (eukaryotic cell with well organized nuclei that fits no other kingdom)
3) fungi (no chlorophyll so they are parasitic)
4) and 5) plants and animals.
References I have found do not clearly delineate members of the 8-kingdom classification. While I have neither hope for nor interest in entering the controversies surrounding taxonomy, as long as we can unambiguously assign data to a specific genus and species, we should be able to organize data. [alga (singular), algae (plural), algal (adjective)]

* lists 18 phyla of protista (eukaryotes that do not have the distinctive characteristics of plants, animals or fungi) as:
acrasiomycota (cellular slime molds)
bacillariophyta (diatoms) - food reserves chrysolaminarin
chlorophyta (green algae) - food reserve is starch
chrysophyta (golden algae)
chromista - includes kelp and plankton
ciliophora (ciliated protozoans - classes karyorelictea, phyllopharnygea, spiroturichea, colopodea, prostomatea, nassophorea, litostomatea, oligohymenophorea)
dinoflagellata (dinoflagellates)
diplomonada (archezoa)
euglenophyta (euglenoids) - unicellular (1 colonial genus), food reserve is paramylon
foraminifera (forams)
myxomycota (plasmodial slime molds) - terrestrial, no cell walls, food reserve is glycogen
oomycota (water molds) - food reserve is glycogen
phaeophyta (brown algae) - colder oceans, food reserve is laminarin
rhizopoda (amoebas)
rhodophyta (red algae) - mostly marine in warm waters, food reserve is floridean starch
zoomastigophora (zooflagellates)

1-30-08 My thoughts of the future have undergone a transformation since first considering algae for fuel. I now see harnessing algae as mankind's best hope for feeding a world population that seems inevitable, as well as reducing the "greenhouse effect" of atmospheric CO2. Rather than research on elimination of algae, which has been the dominant interest in the past, attention must be directed to identifying and cultivating the most useful algae. In time, algae will become our dominant source for food, both human and animal, and energy, including oil extraction, carbohydrate conversion with fermentation to produce ethanol and anaerobic digestion to produce methane; moreover, algae may become important in dealing with organic wastes that are presently consigned to landfills. Economics of conversion as well as by-products will become the realms of competition.

I surmise that research will be retarded until someone filters through available data, selects a target (possibly a candidate for genetic modification), and reports results showing a dramatic improvement in cultivation, harvesting and/or extraction.
(Dec '07) Shell is reportedly building an experimental plant in Hawaii to convert algae to fuel. Initially 2.5 hectare of water will be used, expanding to 1000 and then to 20,000 if experiments are successful. (I have been unable to learn which green alga Shell anticipates using although it is said to be non-genetically-modified and reproduces several times a day.)
(Jan '08) Chevron has entered an agreement to develop and test fuel from algae.
In July '09 Exxon Mobil announced plans to spend $600 million in pursuit of algae for fuel.
Joule Biotechnologies claims to have already succeeded but details of their proprietary system have not been revealed.

An overriding interest in algae arises from its consumption of CO2 in the process of converting sunshine into biomass. (Canada has funded initial efforts at CO2 sequestration.) And algae production may benefit from waste heat from generation of electricity.

A primitive discussion of algae taken from my 1957 Encyclopedia Brittanica, where taxonomy was taken as kingdom, phylum, class, order, genus, species:
[Data included in brackets has been added and is not from Brittanica.]
There are some 18000 known strains of algae.
Algae are highly specific in preference for temperature and continuity of moisture.
Simplest algae are one-celled and have flagella protruding through the cell wall. Fresh water algae may be permanently submerged and attached (benthos) or free-floating (plankton). Benthotic algae are found mostly in flowing water, ponds & lakes, pools and ditches, bogs & swamps. Plankton are mostly unicellular or colonial non-filamentous found in lakes, ponds and slowly flowing streams. Soft-water lakes are rich in species but with small number of individuals; in hard-water there are fewer species but they may 'bloom.' Fresh water algae may exist in snow, in hot springs, in brine lakes or in or on animals or in or on plants; some are parasitic. Aerial species may get water from moisture in the air; terrestrial algae get water partly from air and partly from ground water; some withstand extended drought. Zygotes of most grass-green algae secrete a thick wall and do not germinate until they have undergone a ripening period lasting weeks or months.

Phyla of algae are: Chlorophyta, Euglenophyta, Pyrrophyta, Chrysophyta, Phaeophyta, Rhodophyta, and Cyanophyta. Based on this, the best organization I could derive from the encyclopedia is this: [Smithsonian indicates 300,000 species of algae.]


  • Class
      • Genus
Chlorophyta: [includes green seaweed; energy storage is starches]
  • Chlorophyceae (grass-green): 350 genera, 8000 species [starch, oils]
      Volvocales (most primitive order) with motile vegetative cells genera mostly are fresh-water as
      • Chlamydomonas which is unicellular
          Chalmydomonas reinhardii [NREL studied extensivelsy]
      • Eudorina, which is colonial and may have up to 128 cells)
      • Volvox, may be in a [hollow, spherical] colony of several thousand cells
      Tetrasporales up to 100 species, mostly fresh water
      • Tetraspora
      Ulotrichales 80 genera, mostly fresh-water, 450 species.
      • Ulothrix is unbranched filaments
      • Stigeoclonium filaments branched standing free of one another
      • Coleochaete branches laterally compacted to form a solid disk.
      Ulvales 100 species, mostly marine, cells joined in flat sheets or hollow tubes
      • Ulva &
      • Enteromorpha abundant in all oceans
      • Monostroma do not alternate life cycles
      Schizogoniales 3 genera
      • Prasiola restricted to high tide level of rocks covered with sea bird droppings.
      Cladophorales have multinucleate cells joined end to end in branched or unbranched filaments, 12 genera
      • Cladophora has 150 species; both fresh and salt waters, [may be several meters long]
      Oedogoniales, 3 genera, 350 species;
      • Oedogonium (genus with the most species) is commonest filamentous algae of pools and ditches
      Zygnematales 40 genera, 3000 species, all fresh water and acquatic
      • Spyrogyra is most widely distributed of all fresh-water algae
      • Staurastrum
      • Micrasterias
      Chlorococcales mostly fresh water, reproduction by spores or gametes
      • Chlorella &
      • Golenkinia are unicellular;
      • Scenedesmus &
      • Pediastrum in non-filamentous colonies
      Siphanoles are unicellular, multinucleate branched tubes; 50 genera, mostly marine in tropics & sub-tropics
      • Vaucheria most frequently found in fresh water
      • Caulerpa freely branched with different shapes and independent of each other
      • Penicillus &
      • Codium branches densely interwoven
      Siphonocladiales marine, 120 species, tropical waters
        Acetabularia is known as mermaid's wineglass
  • Charophyceae (stoneworts): single order
      Charales 6 genera, 200 species, all submerged in fresh or brackish water.

Euglenophyta grass-green chromatophores; food reserves are paramylum (an insoluble carbohydrate) or fats; one class

  • Euglenophyceae most genera are unicellular similar to
      • Euglena1, found in stagnant fresh water
      Euglenales includes all genera with motile cells
      Colaciales has only one genus
      • Colacium1)

Pyrrophyta [fire algae] yellowish to brownish chromatophores that store reserve foods as starch or starch-like compounds

  • Cryptophyceae (cryptomonads) 12 genera, 2 with colonial organization similar to Tetraspora
      • Cryptomonas in fresh water rich in organic & nigrogenous materials.
  • Desmokonteae are rare, mostly marine
  • Dinophyceae 120 genera, 950 species, mostly marine plankton; 90% of genera are unicellular and motile; motile cells are placed in 3 orders, immobile in 3 orders, thus:
      [Dinoflagellates = red tides (result from excess nutrients in the water)
          Karenia (Gymnodinium) brevis generates brevetoxin in Gulf of Mexico
          Alexandrium fundyense generates saxitoxin in Gulf of Maine
          Alexandrium (Gonyaulax) tamarense from Canadian E coast]
      Gymnodiniales (without a wall)
      • Glenodinium

Chrysophyta yellowish-green to yellowish-brown chromatophores, food reserves are leucosin and oils [droplets]; 300 genera, 5700 species (3/4 fresh water), classes

  • Xanthophyceae (Heterokontae) 75 genera, 200 species, yellow-green, almost all fresh water; store food as leucosin or oils; orders have counterpart of Chlorophyceae
      Heterochloridales, 9 unicellular genera
      Rhizochloridales, 7 genera; very rare, fresh water
      Heterocapsales, rare, fresh water, are colonial similar to Tetrasporales
      Heterotrichale cells joined end to end
      • Tribonema common in fresh water pools during spring months
      Heterococcales: largest order, 45 genera, nearly all fresh water, unicellular & colonial
      • Ophiocytium, most frequently encountered genus but never abundant
      Heterosiphonales have only one genus
      • Botrydium in firm damp soil so crowded as to cover the ground
  • Crysophyceae (golden-brown algae) form endospores, store food as leucosin or fats, 65 genera, 1000 species, primarily in fresh water
      Chrysomonadales (half of order)
      Rhizochrysidales (12 genera) are fresh water
      Chrysocapsales are colonial (10 genera)
      • Hydrurus, most widely distributed, swiftly-flowing cold water streams
      Chrysotrichales (5 genera, rare, fresh water) cells unite end to end in branched or unbranched filaments
      • Thallochyrsis have branches laterally united
      Chrysococcales (6 genera, all fresh water)
      • Chrysosphaera
  • Bacillariophyceae (diatoms) unicellular or colonial, [100000 species], cell wall of silica, prefer cold water fresh brackish or sea, contain abundant oil, chrophylls a & c; chromosomes are diploid during vegetative reproduction
      • Cymbella
      • Amphipleura
      • Chaetoceros
      • Nitzchia
      • Cyclotella
      • Navicula
      • Hantzschia
      • Diploneis: from NREL]
      Centrales (100 genera & 2400 species) mostly marine
      Pennales 70 genera, 2900 species, somewhat more marine than fresh water.

Phaeophyta (brown algae); food reserve is the carbohydrate laminarin dissolved in cell sap, some oils; all but 3 of 900 species are marine in colder seas. [Includes kelp, seaweed; dismissed as source for oil]

Rhodophyta (red algae); food reserve is insoluble carbohydrate floridean starch; a single class Rhodophyceae of 340 genera and 2500 species; about 50 species, belonging to 12 genera, are fresh water, all others marine. [Dismissed as source for oil] [Include coralline algae whose hard carbonate shells likely contribute more to reefs than do corals] [Some taxonomists include red algae in the plant kingdom with taxonomies in a state of flux.]

Cyanophyta (blue-green algae), 150 genera and 2000 species, 80% fresh water either aquatic or terrestrial; only one class: Myxophyceae (Cyanophyceae), majority multicellular. [Prokaryotes, unique among morena in that they possess photosynthetic pigments; dismissed as source for oil][Cyanobacteria are usually unicellular although they may grow in colonies or filaments.]

[Some people prefer to list chlorophyta, rhodophyta and phaeophyta as plants.][I am unable to place chromista, where another source places brown algae and diatoms.] End of discussion taken from my encyclopedia.

My earliest knowledge of algae was red algal blooms in the Gulf of Mexico and green blooms in ponds and rivers, both harmful, so algae were regarded as a scourge to be killed. Algae were also being used in treatment of wastewater.

I spent a great deal of time with the web site It contains a wealth of information and links to sources of information emphasizing algae as source for petroleum substitutes.

Algae figure prominently in many uses, including foods. For the purpose of biodiesel, only the oil or fat content seems appropriate, although the carbohydrate content may be of value in ethanol production. Some values are:
Algae strain%lipids...%carbohy-%protein...%nucleic
drates acid
Anabaena cylindrica4-725-3043-56
Chlamydomonas rheinhardii211748
Chlorella pyrenoidosa22657
Chlorella vulgaris14-2212-1751-584-5
Dunaliella bioculata8449
Dunaliella salina63257
Euglena gracilis14-2014-1839-61
Porphyridium cruentum9-1440-5728-39
Prymnesium parvum22-3825-3328-451-2
Scenedesmus dimorphus16-4021-528-18
Scenedesmus obliquus12-1410-1750-563-6
Scenedesmus quadricauda1-9 47
Spirogyra sp.11-2133-646-20
Spirulina maxima6-713-1660-713-4.5
Spirulina platensis2-58-1446-632-5
Synechoccus sp.515635
Tetraselmis maculata31552
per Becker, 1994

According to, the following strains of algae are presently being studied:
neochloris oleoabundans, a green algae
schenedesmus dimorphus, a unicellular green algae, is heavy and forms thick sediments if not kept in constant agitation.
euglena gracilis
phaeodactylum tricornutum, a diatom
pleurochrysis carterae, a unicellular coccolithophorid alga (class haptophyta or prymnesiophyceae) calcerous scales surround cell wall
prymnesium parvum is toxic
tetraselmis chui
isochrysis galbanais micro
nannochloropsis (strain of eustigmatophyte) salina (nannochloris oculata - N. oculata) same group as N. atomus Butcher, N. maculata Butcher, N. gaditaa Lubian, N. oculata (Droop)
botryococcus braunii strains (a green algae) can produce long chain hydrocarbons (86% dry weight) are unique in quality and quantity of liquid hydrocarbons it produces
dunaliella tertiolecta is fast-growing with oil yield aprx 37%
nannochloris sp.
spirulina species
Diatoms were most favored by NREL researchers but require narrow temperature range and need silicon in the water to grow; green algae need nitrogen to grow and tolerate temperature fluctuations.

From 1978 to 1996 the U.S. Dept. of Energy (Office of Transportation Technology, under the Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable energy) in its National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), Colorado, in its Aquatic Species Program (ASP), researched use of algae for oil production. It was an extensive program starting with virtually no information on source for oils. Samples were collected and methods of their analysis developed. Methods of large scale cultivation were explored. At its peak their collection consisted of over 3000 strains, which was winnowed to aprx 300, mostly green algae and diatoms. It had been observed that algae oil production is enhanced by nutrient deficiency; that was a major factor studied. It was likely a poor choice to attempt to squeeze more oil, by nutrient deficiency or genetic alteration (seeking a 'lipid trigger' to encourage alga to produce more oil), from selected groups of strains; it proved to be an unrewarding effort since reproduction was retarded so overall oil production was not improved. Efforts at genetic manipulation with an enzyme did not increase production. Control of pH, etc., allowed 90% utilization of injected CO2 in open ponds with reasonable control of algal species, but overnight low temperatures hindered production. Concluded enclosed ponds with temperature control would be required, and costs of biodiesel from algae would exceed petro diesel by a factor of two (1980s). Also concluded that algal systems could provide significantly more energy than oilseed crops [aprx 30 times more per acre]. (12-07 NREL was reported to be slated to resume research in collaboration with Chevron.)

Their SERI (Solar Energy Research Institute) collection of microalgae was moved in 1998 to the University of Hawaii; a NSF grant was used to form Marine Bioproduct Engineering Center (MarBEC) at Manoa; Wikipedia lists the SERI collection.

The 328-page NREL report, providing a summary of work from 1980 to 1996, is not available (Nov. 07) on the web site NREL.rept.pdf, but was found at I found it very difficult to glean useful information beyond the summary above, partly due to different experimental conditions used by various contractors, although it describes experimental growth conditions and rates as well as including extensive bibliographies.

From the NREL report:
Pyrmnisophytes (haptophytes), marine, 500 species
Eustigmatophytes, includes genus nannochloropsis
Cyanobacteria are prokaryotic with no significant lipids, 2000 species

Some algae grow at rates of 1.5-4 doublings per day.
Microalgae produce more oil than macroalgae, which produce almost none.

Miscellaneous notes gleaned from the 328-page NREL final report:
Algae may be subdivided into microalgae, macroalglae (which grow mostly in marine environments), and emergents (which grow partially submerged); since macroalgae and emergents produce few lipids, ASP concentrated on microalgae.
Researchers isolated the enzyme Acetyl CoA Carboxylase (ACCase) (which catalyzes a key metabolic step in oil synthesis in algae) and isolated the gene that encodes for ACCase. They demonstrated over-expression of the ACCase gene, but it did not yield higher oil production.
Diatoms dominate the phytoplankton in the ocean and are also found in fresh and brackish water. They contain polymerized silica in their cell walls and store carbon in natural oils and in the polymer chrysolaminarin.
Green algae are abundant in fresh water as single cells or colonies; storage is starch but oils can be produced under certain conditions.
Blue-green algae are closer to bacteria in structure and organization; they play an important role in fixing nitrogen in the atmosphere.
Golden algae are similar to diatoms; they may be yellow, brown or orange in color. They store oils and hydrocarbons.
Compared with oilseed crops, microalgae are capable of producing 30 times the amount of oil per unit area of land.
Algae growth was undertaken in shallow open ponds of raceway design with paddles to provide circulation and waste CO2 intoduced into the water. With careful control of pH and other conditions for introducing CO2 into the ponds, 90% utilization of injected CO2 was realized. Low over-night temperatures hampered algal growth, so waste heat from generation may be utilized to maintain optimum growth conditions. Coal-fired power plants emit flue gas containing up to 13% CO2.
ASP considered 1) production of methane, 2) production of ethanol via fermentation and 3) production of biodiesel. Of course algal biomass may be burned as a fuel. Food for animals or people was not part of the project.
Because many algal species grow in brackish water, areas unsuited to other uses may be used for algae production.
Biodiesel results from reacting a simple alcohol with the triacetylglycerols (TAGs) from algae to produce an alkyl ester (transesterification) that is very similar to petro diesel.
Detailed examination of reports by various investigators shows a great diversity in research methods used and reporting of results, which hampers comparisons; moreover results were severely compromised by effort to increase lipid production using deficient culture media. Moreover, the open ponds used for field studies were subject to invasion by wind-borne strains. In consequence I have undertaken neither an alphabetical listing of species included in studies nor tabular data of research results, although there was a clear preponderance of diatoms and green algae (chlorophyta).
The Japanese, French and German governments have invested in closed bioreactors for algae production.

Temporary end of information gleaned from limited search of NREL sources. I have concluded the report provides little useful data except that its detail provides insights into directions for research that won't be productive.

The Smithsonian Institute's Natural Museum of Natural History lists a number of bibliographies at

Ideally, we want an alga with high efficiency in conversion of sunlight and that requires little fertilization, yields significant quantities of oil, reproduces rapidly in a pond having little circulation at temperatures warm to the human body, free floating, easily separated. Since algae need carbon dioxide and many strains prefer warmth, a strain that would thrive on waste heat and flue gas from an electricity-generating facility (where aeration ponds are now used and flue gases are discharged into the atmosphere), is my first choice of characteristics. Aggressiveness, in their ability to resist invasion by other strains, is also necessary unless the pond is covered to protect it from air-borne particles.

In my view, separation from their host and harvesting represent challenges. If benthotic (growing on another plant or structure), they must be separated from their host; if free-floating they must be separated from water, perhaps by gravity or centrifuging if their density allows rising to the top of still water. Since macroalgae and emergent algae (growing in bogs and marshes) produce few lipids, the best choices of strain seem to be microscopic; because of size, filtering seems unlikely unless they grow in colonies, filaments or other clusters. Once harvested, separation of oil (most expensive part of the process) may use any of several processes that produce more energy than they spend. Several are discussed at hr size=3 width=200 noshade aling=center>

I lived in the research community for years, part of it funded by the Federal government and part by private money; it is a whirling dirvish of competing motivatations. Politicians, for whatever reason -- and I could elaborate on that to their decided embarrassment -- decided that NREL research was not yielding sufficient results and money could be directed more to their liking elsewhere. In the fullness of time someone with be inspired to toy with a system using a selected alga and show a profit; then the race among investors will be on and we will get oil from algae. The oil is there, but everyone is afraid that his investment will prove wasted because someone else will find better algae or simpler processes and his investment will be lost to competition. What we need at this juncture is someone to systematically explore all identifiable algae and construct a table of how each alga fares with respect to desirable characteristics, which I detailed above.

My present intention (8-28-07) is to continue accumulating data on algae as a casual -- not priority -- pursuit because, eventually, algae must become a primary source for vehicle and home heating fuel. Presently, published research that I have found seems much too primitive to offer much hope for that becoming a reality within the next decade or two. (12-9-07) I hear Shell is building a pilot plant in Hawaii to produce biodiesel from algae.

I am unsure of taxonomic identifications of these (from my encyclopedia):
aquatic fresh water: trentepohlia - tropic & temperate
cephaleuros - parasitic - never in cold regions
compsopogon - so. U.S., W Indies, Central America
pithophora - tropic & temperate
golenkinia - cell bears bristles
merispodia - colonial in a flat plate
pediastrum - colonial in a flat plate
Caulerpa -unicellular macroscopic with leaf, stem and root-like branches
Chondrus - red algae with filaments compacted to form a plant body - macroscopic
Ectocarpus - branched filaments free of one another
Gloeocapsa - cells have no definite orientation with respect to one another
Kelp - brown with rootlike holdfast, stemlike stalk, leaflike blades
Macrocystis - kelp
Nereocystis - kelp
Spirulina grows under high pH
Urothrix - cells joined end-to-end in unbranched filament

I am unsure of taxonomic identifications of these, taken from NREL
Ankistrodesmus & Chlorococcum: genus or sp.?
Monoraphidium minutum
Boekelovia: genus or sp.

Phyla of kingdom Protista (characterized as heterogeneous assemblage of unicellular, colonial and multicellular eukaryotes that do not have the distinctive characters of plants, animals or fungi; locotion by flagella; sexual reproduction; carbohydrate food reserves); 12 classes including unicellular plankton, photosynthetic phytoplankton, heterotrophic zooplankton:
Euglenophyta: aprx 900 species, mostly freshwater; unicellulalr except one colonial genus; chlorophylls A and B in 1/3 of genera; pellicle cell wall; reproduction by cell division.
Myxomycota: aprx 700 species; terrestrial; lack cell walls (naked protoplasm creeps over lawns, plants, rotting materials; sexual reproduction
Rhodophyta: 4000-6000 species, mostly warm or tropical marine; grow attached to rocks or other algae (few free floating, few unicellular or colonial); calcium carbonate in cellulose cell walls important in building coral reefs; food for corals
Oomycota: aprx 700 species; unicellular to highly branched; cellulose cell walls; species saprolegnia is common water mold
Bacillariophyta: (diatoms) aprx 100,000 extant species, mostly unicellular w/few colonials; reproduction mainly asexual
Phaeophyta: aprx 1500 species (brown algae and/or kelps) include most seaweeds of temperate regions; mostly marine in colder oceans
Chlorophyta: green algae, aprx 17000 species, precursor of true plants; mostly multicellular in free floating colonies in gelatinous matrix makes available data from the unpublished Encyclopedia of Algal Genera. Data for marine algae, particularly seaweed, are the most complete. Tremendous amount of information but limited to what each researcher sought. There may be taxonomic confusion.

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Miscellaneous notes picked up from goodness-knows-where:
caulerpa taxifolia: noxious seaweed "killer algae" spreading along the Mediterranean coasts
gonyaulax tamarensis: "red tide" in Canadian and New England waters
Kingdom protista Phylum dinoflagellates

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