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article imageEssential Science: Why algae may be the superfood of 2017

By Tim Sandle     Jan 2, 2017 in Science
The production of biocompounds from microalgae is seen by one research consortium as providing a solution for world hunger, as well as producing a nutritional food source in general. To do so requires an improved biotechnological solution.
The research consortium behind the project is called “Algae for a Healthy World.” The project is at its early stages, following a late 2016 launch, with discussions taking place over the appropriate biotechnological tools needed to improve and to optimize the production of algal biomass of marine origin. According to Tech Times, the "Algae for a Healthy World" group involves seven entities namely the Center for Biological Research (CSIC-CIB), Novatec, AINIA, Mar Cristal Marilum, Endesa, Neoalgae Micro Seaweed Products and the University of Cádiz. All the seven bodies are from varied backgrounds and are leaders in their specific fields of research.
A simple  small-scale photobioreactor being used in the culture of green algae.
A simple, small-scale photobioreactor being used in the culture of green algae.
The basis of the research is microalgae. Microalgae are minute and the world's first known photosynthetic plants that convert solar energy into proteins and sugars. They are also the first step in the aquatic food chain, and thus connected with human life. The biodiversity of microalgae is enormous and they represent an almost untapped resource. It has been estimated that about 200,000-800,000 species in many different genera exist of which about 50,000 species are described. The reason there is considerable interest in these tiny lifeforms is because, to date, over 15,000 novel compounds originating from algal biomass have been chemically determined. These include carotenoids, antioxidants, fatty acids, enzymes, polymers, peptides, toxins and sterols. The primary strains used are Spirulina, Nannochloropsis gaditana and Pyrocistis. The main focus in recent years has been with biofuels.
Not all of these chemicals can be commercialized. However, research suggests microalgae be used in the sustainable production of natural pigments and antioxidants such as beta-carotene and astaxanthin. Polyunsaturated fatty acids, which usually come from fish oil, can also be synthesized from microalgae (see, for example, "Porous Substrate Bioreactors: A Paradigm Shift in Microalgal Biotechnology?", published in Trends in Biotechnology). In a different direction, other scientists are looking at the use of microalgae for biodiesel production, including their cultivation, harvesting, and processing ("Microalgae for biodiesel production and other applications: A review", published in Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews).
Green algae
Green algae
The most promising focus, in terms of meeting global development goals, is with food production. This is not something new, but rather an area that has been returned to with the idea of applying modern scientific thinking. Indeed, the first use of microalgae by humans dates back 2000 years to the Chinese, who used Nostoc to survive during famine.
Some current considerations and application for microalgae, outside of biofuels, include:
To enhance the nutritional value of food and animal feed;
Developing aquaculture;
Being incorporated into cosmetics;
Using biomolecules produced by the algae for food. For example, polyunsaturated fatty acid oils added to infant formulas or nutritional supplements and pigments are important as natural dyes.
Some of this is already in development and microalgage market is becoming profitable. The microalgae biomass market generates almost 10,000 tons of dry material yearly, producing a turnover of approximately 1,500 million euros ($1 million) per year on a worldwide level.
Chlamydomonas reinhardtii (green algae)
Chlamydomonas reinhardtii (green algae)
University of Cambridge
With food, many see algae production as a solution to world hunger. This is an argument made, for instance, in the book Healthy Eating, Healthy World: Unleashing the Power of Plant-Based Nutrition by J. Morris-Hicks. The foodstuff is also high in nutrition, according to Nutritional therapist, Lily Soutter, who recently told a London based website: "Algae has been referred to as a whole food, providing protein, carbohydrate, essential fats and all the vitamins and minerals we need to survive and it is so nutrient dense that it has been at the center of research for resolving some of the world’s hunger crisis."
Recently the "Algae for a Healthy World" group came together and held the first major meeting. As reported by Algae World News: "The inaugural meeting was about highlighting the goals of the project as] to generate new products and to increase the profitability of microalgae cultivation technology on an industrial scale, and to establish Spain as a leader in the production of these bioproducts."
The aim of the group is support research and to help commercialize microalgae production. This includes developing cost-effective and sustainable microalgae production methods. This requires several scientific disciplines to come together, to foster the biological and engineering aspects necessary to improve cultivation and to develop efficient biorefineries.
Toxic algae forms on the surface of a pond
Toxic algae forms on the surface of a pond
This represents a key area of research since production methods are not consistent and several factors are at play. The chemical composition of the microalgae varies over a wide range. These are shaped by different cultivation factors, which include temperature, light, pH of the medium, supply of carbon dioxide, concentration and type of nutrients, source and concentration of nitrogen, salinity and growth phase. The "Algae for a Healthy World" consortium hopes to overcome these variations with stable production facilities.
Currently algae for commercial use are either grown in open ponds or indoors, under laboratory conditions. The most likely solution is inside, using a specially designed photobioreactor which can have the control systems to optimize microalgae production. A photobioreactor allows much higher growth rates and purity levels than anywhere in nature or habitats similar to nature. Such devices also keep algae genetics pure and reduce the possibility of parasite infestation.
The “Algae for a Healthy World” (A4HW) project has a budget of one million euros for a term of two years, and is co-financed by the European Union via the European Regional Development Fund (FEDER).
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This article is part of Digital Journal's regular Essential Science columns. Each week Tim Sandle explores a topical and important scientific issue. Last week we showed how the remarkable meteorological formation the ice cloud - comes into existence. The previous week we examined how nanotechnology is being used to tackle the most resistant types of breast cancer tumours.
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