Sea lettuce may hold the key to a new and valuable industry in New Zealand. Credit: Friends of Taputeranga Marine Reserve, New Zealand

Fuseworks Media reports that Sea lettuce (green seaweed) may hold the key to a new and valuable industry in New Zealand, thanks to a $13 million algal biotechnology research project funded by the Government and University of Waikato.

Leading the research program is seaweed biologist Dr. Marie Magnusson, who recently joined the University of Waikato’s Tauranga-based Coastal Marine Field Station. Guided by Chair of Coastal Science, Professor Chris Battershill, the research will investigate ways to use algae and extracts for human food, animal feed supplements, and nutraceutical uses. Dr. Magnusson is joined by seaweed chemist and her husband Dr. Chris Glasson. Together they aim to establish a world-class team of researchers to explore commercial applications of seaweed and develop new market opportunities for New Zealand’s aquaculture industry.

“Macroalgae represents a largely untapped resource for materials and bioproducts that will enable sustainable diversification of New Zealand’s aquaculture industry, while leading to development of new ventures based on high value bioproducts, contributing to regional development,” says Dr. Magnusson, who previously headed the Centre for Macroalgal Resources and Biotechnology at James Cook University, Australia.

Seaweed is already a multi-billion-dollar industry in Asia, especially red and brown seaweed, however the potential of green seaweed is yet to be maximized, she says. “It has an immense range of applications, from watering your garden with seaweed extract, to eating it, to promoting general health and wellbeing in both humans and a range of animal production systems. The research team is looking at several seaweed species, starting off with sea lettuce due to its abundance within the Bay of Plenty region.

Dr. Glasson, also from James Cook University, says they have previously done a lot of work with species of Ulva in Australia. “Ulva has interesting properties in terms of chemistry and bioactivity. It mimics a lot of activities of sulphated polysaccharides we have in our own system, and it can enhance the immune system to fight off infections and different diseases. It can also enhance the immune system of plants against plant diseases, which can ultimately reduce the need for insecticides and pesticides in agriculture. So, the range of applications for green seaweed is large, meaning this scourge might actually be an asset in disguise.”

The algal research program will have two main areas of focus, says Dr. Magnusson. “In terms of fresh water, we are targeting nutrient extraction and bioremediation because there is a lot of nitrogen present in the fresh water systems from agriculture. Another key focus is the cultivation of seaweeds and the development of bioproducts from the seaweed biomass.”

“We’re looking at a range of seaweed species, in sea, long lines and co-cultivation with mussel farms. There’s also much scope for land-based production in conjunction with aquaculture of fish or crayfish to utilize free nutrients from the fish farm effluence to grow the seaweed.”

Dr. Magnusson’s ultimate objective is to promote seaweed aquaculture — both land-based and sea — and see the expansion of the macroalgae industry in New Zealand, which she acknowledges will take a lot of legislative lobbying. While there is already a seaweed industry in New Zealand, it’s based around wild collection and drift biomass that’s stranded on the beach. “There has been lots of seaweed research in New Zealand, but we think this current initiative has the capacity to transform the NZ seaweed industry, contributing to the multi-billion-dollar global seaweed industry.”

As part of the Tertiary Education Commission’s Entrepreneurial Universities program, the Government is committing approximately $4 million over four years to the seaweed research, while the University of Waikato is putting in more than $9 million.

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