WILMINGTON, N.C. — You may think of algae as the green goo you see in your neighborhood, but it can also be a lifesaving piece of the puzzle that leads to cures to diseases.

What You Need To Know

  • For Earth Week, the American Chemical Society is celebrating the curious chemistry of algae
  • Earth Week is marked worldwide April 14-22, ending on Earth Day
  • Algae has been a critical resource in finding cures to diseases

A chemistry professor at UNC Wilmington is studying algae to discover new compounds for use in medicines and therapies.

“There's actually an evolutionary bridge between bacteria and plants. And so they have many characteristics and properties and behave in many ways like bacteria, but they actually are photosynthetic like plants. And so they're sort of a blend of plants and bacteria,” Thomas Williamson said. 

Williamson's research with algae has taken him all over the world. 

“Exotic places like Papua New Guinea and any nook and cranny that you can imagine collecting algae and looking for new drug leads from these marine sources,” Williamson said.

The goal of his research is to save lives. 

“Actually mining these algae to find new chemical compounds that can be used as new leads for new therapeutics, for medicines, for people,” Williamson said. 

Chemistry plays a key role in our world, he says. 

“Chemistry is called the central science for a reason. It's really the foundation of everything that goes on. All the biochemical processes, everything that goes on inside of our body and out, everything that goes on around us all comes back to chemistry,” Williamson said. 

Williamson’s isn’t the only algae-related research at UNCW. 

“We're taking those genes, manipulating them to make new compounds and inserting those genes in algae. So the algae actually makes a new compound. So we're not only just taking a chance and hoping that now you're already making something good, we're actually manipulating the algae and training them to make new molecules for us,” he said. 

Seeing the wide range of resources algae can provide is pertinent to protecting our planet. 

“Algae make up such a large part of our ecosystem and they actually affect our lives in many ways that we never even consider,” Williamson said.