This picture of cyanobacteria Gloeotrichia echinulata won 4th place in the 1992 Nikon Small World Competition.
About 3 billion years ago, Earth was a different planet. It was not populated by people, animals or plants, and the atmosphere was mostly carbon dioxide. Earth’s inhabitants were microorganisms such as bacteria, so small they’re impossible to see without the help of a microscope.
So how did that Earth become the planet on which we live? Many scientists who study evolution blame one particular organism called cyanobacteria. (Sometimes known as blue-green algae or blue-green bacteria, these microorganisms were grouped together with algae until just a few years ago.)
“Blue-green bacteria changed the world more than any other group of organisms,” says Brent Mishler, a phycologist at the University of California, Berkeley. Blue-green bacteria were capable of photosynthesis, he says, which means they started taking carbon dioxide and adding oxygen to the atmosphere.
Scientists think that blue-green bacteria are also responsible for algae. Here’s how: These bacteria may have been the first organisms to stay alive through photosynthesis. That means they used sunlight, water and carbon to make their own food.
Other organisms regularly fed on the blue-green bacteria as well. One of these organisms was the ancient ancestor of green algae. But this ancient alga wasn’t green back then — it was colorless.
And one time, when this algal ancestor ate one of these blue-green bacteria, something strange happened. The organism didn’t digest the bacteria — it absorbed it.
Instead of becoming dinner, that bacteria became a permanent resident inside the other organism. Biologists believe that bacteria-inside-an-organism is the oldest ancestor of all green algae. These two organisms each had their own set of genes, but after millions of years and many, many, many generations, the genes mixed and both sets became essential for the alga’s survival. The two organisms had become a single organism.