by Jessica Green
Scientists at the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) are investigating the potential of algae as a replacement for a variety of synthetic products and say that exploring biodiversity is crucial to a sustainable algal biotechnology industry.
“Algae is the future,” says Eleanor Wood, a PhD student at SAMS. “So many problems we face in the world today could be fixed by algae. As the public becomes more aware of environmental degradation, the preference for natural products and solutions over synthetics grows, and algae is a diverse and versatile alternative.”
SAMS is host to the Culture Collection of Algae and Protozoa (CCAP), a unique collection of more than 3,000 algae and protozoan species, supported by the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). Capital investment in the centre last year funded a new algal scale-up facility and analytical suite; the Algal Research, Innovation and Environmental Science (CCAP-ARIES) centre. CCAP-ARIES is a platform to support research and industry to accelerate innovation into algae products.
One such product is astaxanthin, found in some algae and desired for its red pigmentation and antioxidant properties. Astaxanthin is a highly valuable (up to $15,000 per kilogram) and sought after compound, used as a nutraceutical, cosmetic ingredient, or natural colorant. It is also used as a feed additive in aquaculture, which helps to give farmed salmon their pink coloration.
The microalga Haematococcus is the most naturally abundant strain for astaxanthin, however it can be challenging to culture as it has a complex life-cycle, is prone to fungal contamination, and has a relatively slow growth rate.
In the very first academic paper from the CCAP-ARIES centre, Eleanor Wood, her supervisors, and the CCAP team investigated a particular species of algae, Chromochloris zofingiensis which, like Haematococcus, produces natural astaxanthin by turning from green to orange or red, respectively.
While C. zofingiensis contains less astaxanthin per cell compared to Haematococcus, it grows faster and may improve astaxanthin production. This species also produces other bonus products including lipids, carbohydrates, and proteins, which have valuable uses in many of the same industries as astaxanthin. As a biorefinery process, extracting multiple products from a single source of material can increase the value and sustainability of production.
Once scaled up to industry size, the addition of C. zofingiensis to the market will provide a more reliable supply of astaxanthin. “Diversifying sources of algae products like this is crucial to the success of algal biotechnology,” said Wood. “Just having one source of a product is a huge risk, if something happens to that species. So, the idea is to increase variation to prevent losing product.”
But despite laboratory successes, the challenges of upscaling an algal culture large enough to meet the market demands are the main reasons why algae in the UK is the “future” and not the “present,” says Wood.
Chief among these challenges is the lack of funds to support the immense financial cost of upscaling and biorefinery. With such a diversity of species and uses, Eleanor notes that each species and each prospective use would need its own economic analysis to accurately depict the costs of these processes.
Other obstacles include the inconsistency of upscaling results between researchers, as well as acquiring the space and technology needed to complete the job.
Despite these challenges, the future looks bright, according to Wood. “If we want to see the full capabilities of algae utilized, I think we need to just go for it and optimize progressively.”
Head of CCAP, and one of Eleanor’s PhD supervisors, Dr. Michael Ross of SAMS said, “Algae and protozoa are fascinating and incredibly useful organisms. While we have been studying them for quite a long time, we are only now starting to see their potential turn into a reality. It is an exciting time to be involved in algal biotechnology!
“Nevertheless, there is still a lot of work to do and an ocean-full of possibility to explore. SAMS is in a great position to push on with this. We have the benefit of having CCAP on site, excellent researchers, and technical support staff with loads of experience, and cutting-edge facilities. Eleanor’s research is a prime example of all this coming together.”
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