THEY are microscopic single-cell organisms at the very base of the food chain and hard to spot with the naked eye.
They can be used to grow food or make air, mop up human waste and even be converted into fuel.
They’re in smoothies to make them nutritious, and they are what makes salmon pink. Now marine biologists believe they can be used for cancer drugs, HIV treatment, vaccines and even sustaining life on Mars.
Yet after all of this, nobody can really explain what algae are.
At the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) in Dunstaffnage, when I asked the question I was met with momentary silence and blank expressions. “Ask the next person you speak to,” suggested one researcher. After doing exactly that, I was told “it’s impossible to define in one sentence.”
The thing that the staff at SAMS agree wholeheartedly on when it comes to algae is the importance to learn everything we can about it. “It’s weird and wonderful biology can offer us weird and wonderful solutions to problems,” claimed Dr
David Green, a lecturer in Molecular Biology at the institute.
He cited that algae could be cultivated for things like cancer drugs, HIV treatment and vaccines, adding that out of the 3000 strains at SAMS, only about ten are currently being used commercially.
Researchers at SAMS are working on a new mission: space algae.
The aim is that algae will eventually accompany astronauts on three to six-month missions to the moon – or even Mars.
Its versatile nature means that it can be sent up in a seed state, and then reactivated while in space by adding water. Algae are extremophiles – organisms that live in extreme environments, under high pressure and temperatures – and are well-suited to space missions due to being naturally resilient and tough.
While algae have already been dubbed as a potential engine of sustainability on Earth, this could soon stretch to space. Dr Matt Davey of SAMS is leading the investigation and told The Herald that it could effectively be a one-stop-shop for multiple space needs. “We can learn from nature to innovate.
In space, algae could be used for food, health supplements, oxygen or stimulants for plant growth.” When I anxiously asked if there was a risk of the invasive species spreading across the entirety of the moon, Dr Davey assured me that the process wouldn’t involve “scattering seeds randomly,” but instead, it would mean replicating the processes that happen in the lab, in secured areas.
The team are testing the process on different strains of algae collected from the Antarctic, in order to understand how it reacts to certain conditions.
Their lab, overlooking a loch in Dunstaffnage may look like a relatively normal workspace for this field, but through computer-controlled machines that replicate different areas of the world, the algae are subjected to different light and temperatures, and even experience simulations of dawn and dusk.
By doing this, Dr Davey and his team can deduce what algae is best suited for a space mission, as it needs to survive cosmic radiation, hyper-gravity on launching and low gravity in space.
To unearth the revolutionary possibilities of this organism, the education section of SAMS, with the University of the Highlands and Islands, has launched a new Master’s Degree in Algal Biotechnology.
Their aim is to fill what they describe as a “potential skills gap” in this rapidly
growing industry. Course leader, Dr Davey, assures me that there will be a module dedicated to space algae, meaning Mars and luna missions accompanied by the uniquely adaptable organisms may be closer than we think.
The type of research carried out by Dr Davey would not be possible without access to the UK’s algal library which is based at SAMS.
The Culture Collection for Algae and Protozoa (CCAP) opened last month, costing £681,641. The nearly 100-year-old collection is one of the oldest and most biodiverse in the world, and has been labelled as a “botanical garden for algae.”
Its oldest strain, Chlorella Vulgaris, was isolated by a Dutch scientist in 1889 and is still being pumped around a photobioreactor today.
It was in the 1920s when the collection of algae currently housed at SAMS began. Professor Pringsheim – a German mathematician – and his collaborators isolated a number of cultures at the Botanical Institute of the German University of Prague.
Over the years the collection moved to different locations, including Cambridge University and the Windermere Laboratory at Ambleside, but in 2004, the whole collection was relocated to Scotland.
The algae library which boasts around 3000 strains, is run by CCAP manager, Dr Michael Ross.
“The new facility allows us to keep large volumes of the different types” he claimed, adding this enabled them to cultivate algae that could be sent to universities, academics, and other industries to run comparative experiments. “It isn’t a competition,” he said, commenting that the full potential of algae will only be uncovered through collaboration.
The upkeep of algae is labour intensive, and the team at SAMS have a strict schedule to make sure they stay on top.
Karen Mackenzie, a support scientist at the centre told The Herald that every group of algae has a different member of staff that is in charge of looking after them, in order to make sure that they don’t decompose.
Every few months the algae are re-potted in different test tubes and labelled with their specific strain.
Alongside her full-time job at SAMS, Karen also studies the Marine Science degree at the centre, after bagging the job with no science background.
While working in the hospitality sector, Karen only applied for the job to gain some experience in an interview in a different field.
Alongside everything else, SAMS investigates the community that surrounds the algae, such as coral reefs. Dr David Green claimed that the aim is to find out what they can do with algae that solve industrial-scale problems, such as disease.
In order to crack the code, the algae must be broken down so that the blueprints of the organisms can be read and then reassembled.
The work is done in collaboration with The Darwin Tree of Life project, which aims to sequence the genomes of all 70,000 species of eukaryotic organisms,
meaning anything with a defined nucleus, in Britain and Ireland.
The point of this, David told me, is to map the population, and in doing so we can understand when it may come under threat, and identify different aspects of genomes that we can work with.
As well as microalgae, SAMS is also dedicated to the research of macroalgae, or as you and I know it, seaweed. Late last year, a seaweed academy was unveiled by the centre, which is the only dedicated seaweed industry facility offering a complete package of training, education, and business development.
Costing £407,000 through a grant from the UK Government’s Community Renewal Fund, it is one of 56 projects across Scotland to share £18 million in investments that aim to help people to work and enable the UK to achieve net-zero carbon emissions.
Similarly to algae, SAMS hope that by creating their own seaweed farms and
having up-to-date research, seaweed production could be a means of bioremediation (detoxifying), mitigating the impacts of climate change.
According to SAMS, the seaweed industry is worth an estimated £12bn a year globally after demands have grown due to it being used in everything from gourmet restaurants to livestock feed. Before the growing demand in Europe, it said the vast majority of the activity was in Asia.
The environmentally friendly aspects of seaweed mean that it is becoming a viable option to replace unsustainable materials like plastic and cotton, and the fact it is easy to grow makes it even more appealing. Innovative new food wrappings which are biodegradable are being made out of seaweed, and with endless possibilities, this could soon become a standard material in your daily life.
In a world of finite resources, and a demand for sustainability, micro and macro algae could well be the answer to leading the green revolution. With associations like SAMS finding ways to industrialise the organism in their ‘algae training schools,’ it may soon invade every area of our lives; fill our cars, cure diseases, become a staple on our dinner plate and may even be the key for life on Mars.