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EMODnet Human Activities » News » Algae, the next big thing in the blue bioeconomy

Algae, the next big thing in the blue bioeconomy

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To most Europeans, the word ‘algae’ brings to mind the seaweed we see on our beaches or the beautiful Posidonia we can admire underwater (HINT: Posidonia is a plant, it’s not algae). Most of us don’t know much about algae; barring a few exceptions, we don’t eat them, we don’t use them; often we don’t even know they’re photosynthetic eukaryotic organisms that have been around this planet for much longer than we have.

Except there’s a lot more to them than meets the eye. East and South-East Asian countries, for instance, have been eating seaweed for millennia, as anybody who’s ever had sushi might have guessed. Seaweed are part of the regular diet of billions of people in the world, and these countries are also massive producers.

But it’s not just about food, and not just about seaweed either. For starters, algae is an umbrella term which includes a multitude of species which range from unicellular organisms that may be seen only through a microscope (microalgae) to multicellular forms (macroalgae), i.e. the seaweed that we have all seen at least once. Macroalgae are traditionally broken down into red, brown and green macroalgae, based on – guess what? – their colour.

As reported in a recent EUMOFA study, while 80% of the seaweed farmed or harvested is directly consumed as food or processed for food ingredients such as flavourings, 20% is used for its hydrocolloid content (agar, alginates and carrageenans), with a long history as ingredients in foods, microbiology media, pharmaceutical excipients (seaweeds contain a large variety of phytochemical constituents that can be used in the prevention and treatment of diseases, including cancer), cosmetic ingredients, research reagents, water-treatment flocculants, biofuels and other specific uses.

Times are changing and algae are becoming increasingly popular in Europe, with a number of companies harvesting, cultivating, or processing them to create a wide range of high-value products. The sector has excellent growth prospects and can make an invaluable contribution to a cleaner and healthier environment.

Much more microalgae are produced in aquaculture and mariculture than are harvested in the wild. They are currently under research and development for water remediation, production of algal oils (replacing fish oils), production of algal proteins for animal and human feeding, nutritional and pharmaceutical uses, residual proteins and carotenoid anti-oxidants, and high-energy oils for biofuels.

Photobioreactor

Photobioreactor in the biofuel industry

This is the reason why today EMODnet Human Activities welcomes a new dataset on algae production. The dataset shows the location of producers of both macroalgae and microalgae, broken down by production method. In the future, it will be enriched with information on species and quantities cultivated and/or wild-harvested. The data were collected by the Joint Research Centre (JRC) of the EU Commission directly from producers, and so we put some questions to Rita Araújo, a scientific officer at the JRC who coordinated the data collection effort.

EMODnet Human Activities: Hi Rita, can you please tell us more about how and when the idea of creating this dataset came up?

Rita Araújo: When the JRC started working with data on algae production within the Biomass Assessment Study (https://biobs.jrc.ec.europa.eu/) the goal was to estimate the current status and potential trends of the algae sector in Europe. We soon found out that the knowledge available was not sufficient to support good quality analysis on this topic. While using the limited information we got for our work, we started thinking about how to gather and organise the currently fragmented information into a format that was both tailored to our working questions and freely available to different users with different needs, in a user-friendly platform and with a guarantee of quality and reliability. Taking advantage of a workshop organised by the JRC in collaboration with the FAO and COST on the quality of algae production data in Europe, this idea was discussed with colleagues from other sectors (academia, industry, management) and further matured by the JRC team in collaboration with EMODnet. Recently we have been fortunate to benefit from the input of a JRC trainee (Fatemeh Ghaderiardakani) who is entirely dedicated to organising this dataset on algae production. These are the first results of this work.

HA: What user groups do you think will be most interested in these data?

RA: I think the interest in the different categories currently displayed on the map depends on the user. From a very general user perspective, I would say the most interesting application is the global overview of the algae-producing facilities by European country. The balance between micro and macroalgae companies can also be displayed. More specialised users can get information on other topics of interest such as the number of companies producing macroalgae by harvesting or aquaculture (an emerging sector in Europe), the number of pilot projects currently ongoing, the share of production methods used for microalgae, the countries currently dominating the production sector, etc.

HA: The JRC submitted the dataset via the EMODnet Data Ingestion project and committed to maintaining and expanding it in the future. Do you envisage any evolutions? More companies, more data? What are your expectations?

RA: Well, we have lots of plans for the future but the way the database will evolve as a reliable and updated source of information on the algae production sector in Europe will also depend on the collaboration and support we get from the algae industry sector. We expect to increase the number of companies included in the database soon. We also envisage an expansion of the categories represented to include at least information on the species produced. We hope also to add Spirulina producers to the categories represented in the map. Of course the information and the format of the database will also be shaped by the feedback we receive from the users and information providers. We hope it will become a collaborative and dynamic exercise to increase the knowledge of the sector at the European level.

HA: We know you would need a couple of scientific papers to answer this question, but we’ve got to ask: in a nutshell, what is the role of algae in the blue bioeconomy to come?

RA: Algae are seen as important resources in the blue bioeconomy context both because of their relevant role to the conservation of marine ecosystems and their value for a variety of commercial applications that reduce the pressures on land-based products or non-renewable resources or used for their unique properties.

From the conservation side, several macroalgae species are used as food or as habitat by organisms such as fish or invertebrates (e.g. molluscs, crustaceans). Additionally, algae provide bioremediation services because they uptake dissolved nutrients from the water that if not removed might cause eutrophication. Because they are photosynthetic organisms, algae also contribute to carbon sequestration, thereby helping to reduce ocean acidification.

Algae are increasingly being consumed in western diets and might help fulfil food production needs associated with expected human population growth. These organisms are incorporated in food supplements and cosmetics because of their unique nutritional composition and claimed antioxidant and anti-ageing properties. Additionally, researchers are exploring the potential of algae for the production of bioplastics and biofuel with obvious reduction on the environmental footprint.

The information and views set out in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the European Commission. Neither the European Commission nor any person acting on the European Commission's behalf may be held responsible for the use which may be made of the information therein.

November 7th, 2018 | Written by

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