A new research centre will help unlock environmental, economic, and health potential of seaweed and other algae, including a potential pain relief drug.
Cawthron’s algae and bioactives group manager Dr Johan Svenson said the centre would bring different branches of research under one roof and unlock the potential of seaweed and microalgae.
Research is already underway into the “green protein” potential of seaweed, the methane reduction properties of red seaweeds used as cattle-feed, and even potential pharmaceutical uses for toxic microalgae byproducts.
Svenson said a lot of the research Cawthron was doing could be summed up as “trying to make seaweed babies on demand” – that is, seeding macroalgae (seaweeds) for farming.
“For some types [of seaweed] it’s quite easy, but for others it’s much harder.”
In the meantime, companies harvesting seaweed were relying on wild algae harvested from beaches or off mussel-lines. Svenson said the benefits to cracking open-ocean algae farming were huge not just financially, but ecologically as well.
“It’s considered beneficial for the environment [to grow seaweed], you have the carbon sequestration for a while; they increase the pH, at least locally; they act as a nursery; they provide a buffer to prevent erosion.”
Increasing ocean pH helps combat the rising acidity (low pH) caused by climate change.
“More or less 94 per cent of New Zealand is ocean, so there’s room.”
It’s not just seaweeds that will be under the microscope. Cawthron, already a leader in microalgae research for food safety, is looking into the potential of an existing toxic microalgae for pain-killing pharmaceuticals.
The “so-called paralytic shellfish poison” is actually a product of microalgae – when the shellfish eat the microalgae, they absorb and store its toxins.
Svenson said it had already been discovered that those toxins which in large doses cause paralysis, illness and even death could, in very small doses, have pain-relieving effects. Unfortunately, it has so far proved impossible to synthesise or create in a lab setting – but Cawthron and its new algae centre will be working on harvesting the toxin straight from the source and processing it into a safe pharmaceutical.
“If it makes it, this compound would be the first algal drug on the market. It’s not our discovery, but what we’re needing is our ability to produce it.”
Svenson said the annual global demand for the toxin would be about 500mL, and would be worth several billion dollars.
Prime Minister Ardern said at the opening the national algae research centre was “internationally significant”.
She said the Nelson region was known for wine, fishery and agriculture, but should be known for its scientific work.
“This is one of the largest collections of living algae in the world. That’s something I want more Kiwis to know.
“The success of the centre will help the aquaculture industry climb up the value chain.”
Seaweed cultivation was the world’s fastest growing industry sector, she said.
She acknowledged “the challenges of the last 15 months” and commended the Cawthron for not allowing it to slow it down.
“This is a new and potentially very significant industry for New Zealand … the opportunities for algae in New Zealand are endless.”
The centre is being opened in stages, with the first stage opened by Ardern focusing on seaweed, which Kuntzsch said was “poised to become the third pillar of the New Zealand aquaculture sector”.
The next stage for the centre will be a separate facility focusing on microalgae.
Kuntzsch said the Government funding towards the centre had accelerated work in the algae sector “at a much faster pace” than Cawthron would have been able to achieve on its own. He said with the Provincial Growth Fund, along with the $2m Cawthron put towards the project, had enabled the institute to create more than 20 jobs in the region, including construction jobs and technichian roles.
“That number is expected to climb to around 30 jobs in total once both stages of the centre are fully operational.”
Posted by Skara Bohny May 27 2021 on Stuff.