ABO: Algae sees profit where EPA and industry see cost

Some of the EU’s best innovators and researchers are working away to explore the largely unexplored biodiversity of the sea and design ways in which to maximise their economic and scientific potential.

In Wales, a company is developing a process to convert jellyfish into medical-grade collagen for bone and wound treatment. Elsewhere, Unilever is experimenting with an environmentally friendly alternative to bleach in the form of seaweed that prevents bacteria from adhering to dirty surfaces. And in Spain, a pharmaceutical company has developed Yondelis, an anti-viral drug, from a marine creature called a tunicate.

Despite these and other advances, only a tiny percentage of the estimated one million marine organisms and one billion marine microbes have been tested. In order to explore and develop the vast potential of the seas, the European Union has committed to joining up the different work across the EU to help stimulate growth and facilitate access to competitive niche markets whilst avoiding risks to the marine environment.

Blue biotechnology is one of five sectors (the others are blue energy; aquaculture; maritime, coastal and cruise tourism; and marine mineral resources) that the EU believes can deliver sustainable growth and jobs in the Blue Economy.

 

Of the five key areas, blue biotechnology is perhaps the least developed. The unexplored and little studied nature of much of the underwater world means that the economic potential of marine organisms other than fish and shellfish is only just beginning to be appreciated.

However, recent research has helped us to understand how organisms that can withstand extremes of temperature and pressure and grow without light could be used to develop enzymes used in food production and pharmaceuticals, or develop vaccines for farmed fish.

Among the barriers to growth is a lack of collaboration between the public and private sectors, the inability to transfer research results into goods and services, and a skills shortage. While Member States need to adopt policies to address these problems, the EU strategy is designed to support individual countries’ efforts and to provide common building blocks.

In order to capture the cross-cutting nature of marine research and the potential for discoveries in one area to have applications in others, ‘The Ocean of Tomorrow’ initiative has funded 31 projects with an EU contribution of €195 million.

With the focus now on deepening our knowledge, the emphasis is on funding research. The Marine Knowledge 2020 initiative aims to provide an integrated knowledge infrastructure based on national data collection systems. This will include a multi-resolution digital map of the European seabed.

Since 2010, EU-funded research has supported genomic analyses of marine organisms, the cultivation of marine organisms and developing enabling technologies for the culture and isolation of uncultivated microorganisms.

Seaweed is extensively farmed in Asia but is under-exploited in Europe where consumption is low. The AT~SEA project (2012-15) is an EU-funded research project that brings together seven European companies and four research institutes, with the aim of developing seaweed cultivation technologies using innovative textiles that allow large-scale and high-yield cultivation of seaweed. The project wants to demonstrate the technical and economic feasibility of large-scale, open-sea cultivation of seaweed.

In Ireland, an EU-funded research team has identified two algae species with high oil content and fast growth rate that are expected to become suitable for the production of commercial biofuel within 15 years. The project’s goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to create a renewable energy source that can be produced in Europe.

To help with that work, the EU has funded PharmaSea, an interdisciplinary project with 24 partners from 13 countries ranging across industry, academia and NGOs. It focuses on research and the commercialisation of new substances from marine organisms, and its primary goal is to collect samples from some of the hottest, coldest and deepest places on the planet and assess their medical and nutritional potential.

Cross-discipline, cross-border cooperation is a key plank of the EU’s strategy to position Europe as a globally competitive leader in marine biotechnology research. This investment, research and commitment can help the sector become a driver for high-skilled employment and a source of sustainable growth across the EU. By diving into the unknown, blue biotechnology can help Europe back on its feet.

 

Photo: Photobioreactor in an algal biofuel lab. Algal biofuel is an alternative and much quicker method of producing the same kind of energy released by fossil fuels. It uses algae as its source of natural deposits and has a negative CO2 footprint.

View original article at: Algae Sees Profit Where EPA and Industry See Cost

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