The Phaeophyceae or brown algae (singular: alga), is a large group of mostly marine multicellular algae, including many seaweeds of colder Northern Hemisphere waters. They play an important role in marine environments, both as food and for the habitats they form. For instance Macrocystis, a kelp of the order Laminariales, may reach 60 m in length, and forms prominent underwater forests. Another example is Sargassum, which creates unique habitats in the tropical waters of the Sargasso Sea. Many brown algae, such as members of the order Fucales, commonly grow along rocky seashores. Some members of the class, such as kelp, are used as food for humans.
Worldwide there are about 1500–2000 species of brown algae. Some species are of sufficient commercial importance, such as Ascophyllum nodosum, that they have become subjects of extensive research in their own right.
Brown algae belong to a very large group, the Heterokontophyta, a eukaryotic group of organisms distinguished most prominently by having chloroplasts surrounded by four membranes, suggesting an origin from a symbiotic relationship between a basal eukaryote and another eukaryotic organism. Most brown algae contain the pigment fucoxanthin, which is responsible for the distinctive greenish-brown color that gives them their name. Brown algae are unique among heterokonts in developing into multicellular forms with differentiated tissues, but they reproduce by means of flagellated spores and gametes that closely resemble cells of other heterokonts. Genetic studies show their closest relatives to be the yellow-green algae.