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Seaweed is the common name for marine algae. Even though they may look like underwater plants—in some cases, growing in excess of more than 150 feet in length—seaweeds are not plants at all.
Instead, marine algae are a group of species from the Protista kingdom that fall into three distinct groups:
Although algae are not plants, they do share some basic characteristics with them. Like plants, marine algae use chlorophyll for photosynthesis. Seaweeds also have plant-like cell walls. However, unlike plants, seaweeds have no root or internal vascular systems, nor do they produce seeds or flowers, both of which are required to be classified as plants.
Brown algae, from the phylum Phaeophyta (meaning "dusky plants"), is the most prevalent type of seaweed. Brown or yellow-brown in color, brown algae are found in the waters of both temperate or arctic climates. While not roots in the true sense, brown algae typically have root-like structures called "holdfasts" that are used to anchor the algae to a surface.
Seaweeds can thrive in both salt and freshwater, but the brown algae known as kelp grows only in saltwater, most often along rocky coastlines. There are about 30 kelp varieties. One of them forms the giant kelp forests near the California coast, while another makes up the floating kelp beds in the Sargasso Sea in the North Atlantic Ocean.
One of the most widely consumed seaweeds, kelp contains many important vitamins and minerals including vitamin K, vitamin A, vitamin C, folate, vitamin E, vitamin B12, vitamin B6, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, iodine, calcium, magnesium, iron, sodium, phosphorus, as well as small amounts of zinc, copper, manganese, and selenium.
There are more than 6,000 species of red algae. Red algae gain their often brilliant colors thanks to the pigment phycoerythrin. The ability to absorb blue light allows red algae to live at greater depths than either brown or green algae.
Coralline algae, a subgroup of red algae, is important in the formation of coral reefs. Several types of red algae are used in food additives, and some are regular parts of Asian cuisine. Examples of red algae include Irish moss, coralline (Corallinales), and dulse (Palmaria palmata).
More than 4,000 species of green algae exist on the planet. Green algae can be found in marine or freshwater habitats, and some even thrive in moist soils. These algae come in three forms: unicellular, colonial, or multicellular.
Sea lettuce (Ulva lactuca) is a type of green algae commonly found in tidal pools. Codium, another green algae variety, is the favored food of some sea slugs, while the species Codium fragile is commonly referred to as "dead man's fingers."