Microalgae are becoming increasingly important due to their potential for human health and environmental sustainability. These unicellular organisms are rich in nutrients and active compounds that can display a wide range of biological activities. Up-and-coming research is unveiling the multiple potentials of algae in areas such as biomedicine, bioremediation, or treatment of contaminated waters. This is the case of the EU- funded project Algae4IBD, which is investigating how microalgae could help prevent diseases such as Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD).
Many people, including bio-technologists, industry, and policymakers, are becoming increasingly interested in microalgae. The more we learn about them the more they seem to prove to have extraordinary potential. These unicellular autotrophic organisms can provide an enormous variety of applications and services, ranging from feeding people and animals to being used as biomaterials such as bioplastics, bio-fertilisers, biofuels, or bioactive compounds for cosmetics and medicine. They can even be used in bioremediation to treat contaminated waters. Their applications are so wide that I have been working with microalgae for 14 years and I am still discovering new prospects to use these remarkable microorganisms.
Microalgae can be found all over the planet and even in different extreme environmental conditions, such as high temperatures or salt concentrations, low acidity (pH), or in the presence of high contaminant concentrations. To cope with these extreme conditions, microalgae produce metabolites that can display a wide range of biological activities. These metabolites can have antioxidant, antibacterial or anti-inflammatory effects, and even the ability to kill tumor cells.
Given this, the application of microalgae in the pharmaceutical industry is obvious. They have recently been the focus of researchers looking for new bioactive compounds or inspiration for the design of new pharmaceutical drugs. Algae are also very interesting nutrient sources in themselves. They could also be considered functional foods that can help us prevent diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
IBD is characterised by chronic reoccurring inflammation of the digestive system and can include symptoms such as diarrhoea, rectal bleeding, and strong abdominal pain. Some of the biological properties of microalgae, particularly those with antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, prebiotic, and pain-modulating activities, could help fight IBD’s symptoms improving patients’ health and quality of life.
This is in fact what I am researching at CCMAR, as part of the EU-funded project Algae4IBD. Through our research, we have been able to prove that some algae strains contain these anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Now, we are in the process of identifying the compounds responsible for this and isolating them in order to characterise their chemical composition. But this can take between a year and a year and a half, sometimes even longer.
From my experience, a large part of the interest in microalgae arises also from the fact that the production of these organisms can be environmentally sustainable, helping to decrease greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and enhance carbon capture. Microalgae live in both fresh and seawater and need a steady supply of light, CO2, nitrogen, and phosphorus nutrients to grow. Coincidentally, wastewater, especially that from agriculture, is rich in such nutrients, which means that it can be used to grow microalgae. This is a cheap and sustainable technique that benefits algae production and contributes to the wastewater treatment process.
Incorporating microalgae production into our current value chain has the potential to propel our society forward, improving human health but also our lives at many other levels.
Using Algae4IBD as an example, at CCMAR we analyse algae for antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds. These algae are locally grown by NECTON, S.A, a microalgae producer in Algarve, Portugal’s southernmost region. For them, this initiative could mean a new business opportunity and a reason to enlarge their portfolio of microalgal species and applications. In places where sunlight is abundant, like in the Algarve region, encouraging new microalgae production ventures could help create new businesses and jobs.
However, despite the advantages and potential of many microalgae, only around 87 production ventures exist in Europe. Another 213 European companies cultivate solely spirulina, a highly-nutritious type of blue-green algae that grows in both salt and freshwater. This is due to business constraints that hamper the industry’s development. Production costs are high, even for highly productive species, and drying the produced biomass is exceedingly expensive, raising the final product cost.
Microalgae cultivation also requires specific light conditions. To provide enough light for the algae to grow, production systems need to be shallow (like open lagoon systems or raceways) or made from thin tubes of glass or polycarbonate. This means that microalgae production takes up a lot of space, which makes it hard to install production facilities in crowded places, like big cities. To top this off, governments still choose to support conventional agriculture over microalgae production, although the sustainability of microalgae production can be higher than that of vegetables and other crops.
Another constraint are EU regulations. From the tens of thousands of algae species known, only around 20 are produced and commercialised at an industrial scale, and 6 species of microalgae are allowed for human consumption. And getting new species approved is highly time-consuming and overly expensive. This is problematic because although microalgae have many beneficial properties, species can be quite specific. Some microalgae like Spirulina can contain a protein content of up to 70% of their dry weight. Other are rich in omega-3 fatty acids like EPA and DHA, which can only be found in marine oily fish, which in turn obtain them from phytoplankton (the microalgae).
Despite all of this, algae research is advancing fast, and the potential applications of algae are growing. Soon microalgae could be essential sources of proteins, pigments, vitamins, or fatty acids. However, in order to push forward our findings, we have to expand our horizons, dive into the research of new species, and work hard to protect the biodiversity of our oceans.
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