It might surprise you that one of the most innovative technologies that is revolutionizing our world is something that has been around much, much longer than we have. Algae comes in many forms: you can see it as a thick layer over pondwater, as forests of kelp in the ocean, or as a slime coating rocks in as the tide goes out. However, most of the world’s algae actually lies hidden from our eyes in the form of microscopic, one-celled phytoplankton that, despite their size, produce somewhere between 50 and 85% of all the world’s oxygen. That’s more than 3 times the amount of oxygen that all the forests and rainforests on the planet contribute combined.
Algae is the reason our world looks the way it does today.
Algae comes in countless different shapes and sizes; so many, in fact, that two species of algae may be biologically more different from each other than you are from an earthworm. However, while the diversity of algae on the earth is stunning, all types of algae share a couple common traits.
All are photosynthetic, meaning they absorb sunlight and use it to convert carbon dioxide into usable energy in the form of sugars, proteins and oils.
Almost all are aquatic, and by perpetually floating in bodies of fresh and salt water, algae never had to evolve the rigid structures that land plants require to be able to stay upright; this saves them a lot of energy.
But that’s where the similarities end. These fundamental qualities allowed algae to evolve and diversify over billions of years, and their simple requirements of sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide make algae one of the most successful and adaptable organisms on the planet today.
The idea of using algae as a substitute for a variety of industrial practices became popular in the 1970s, at which point the UN even endorsed algae as a critical future technology. Algae can and is being used as a platform for biomanufacturing, or the mass production of compounds that serve a beneficial function to our society. As a technology it succeeds in that it is:
Scalable - it is able to be cheaply expanded
Productive - it is able to efficiently produce compounds of interest
Programmable - it can be manipulated easily in the lab to yield certain products
Sustainable - it is a technology we can use today and every day far into the future without running out of resources or having a significant draw on the environment
Edible – maybe most important of all, we can eat it!
The combination of these five factors make algae a technological superpower, and if we can figure out better ways to manipulate and maintain it, it can help us produce truly immeasurable quantities of valuable goods more cheaply than what we are capable of now. Here are some of the directions algae technology is going, and how it will change industry in the coming years.
Nutrition and Food
The algae we are familiar with seems slimy, green and far from appetizing; and most of it is. But what algae lacks in aesthetics it makes up for in nutrients: by mass, algae possesses more potassium than bananas, more calcium than milk, and almost twice as much protein as beef. It contains more iron than spinach, more beta-carotene than carrots, and is loaded with other vitamins and minerals necessary to keep us in optimum health.
It turns out algae offers us a huge source of nutrients, the most important of which is protein, that we have not yet realized the full potential of. Every year, 700 billion pounds of protein are consumed across the globe, fueling a massive meat industry that is a leading cause of climate change. What if the protein produced by algae could take on some of that responsibility?
Many algae scientists are confident that the world in several decades will have transformed to entirely algae-based protein products, ending our reliance on the meat industry. As a meat eater, the idea makes me cringe a little, bringing images to my mind of thick, green sludge in the shape of a Porterhouse, or algae molded into nuggets sold at McDonald’s. But this will likely never be the case.
While algae will undoubtedly be incorporated much more heavily into our diets, it can provide protein and nutrients in place of meat and not impact the taste or consistency of foods at all! When dried and crushed into powder, algae can be added to non-protein rich foods and increase their nutritional value significantly, with almost no impact on their taste. It can be used in place of eggs to bind water and oil, leading to vegan dressings and mayonnaise. Many chefs are experimenting now with adding algal powders to baked goods, pasta dishes, and more with the goal of preserving the original flavors and textures. If we can obtain the same nutritional value and satiated feeling from a delicious, algae-enriched vegetarian dish as from a meat dish, why wouldn’t we?
For those that despise the idea of eliminating meat from their diets entirely (me included), would you be willing to scale down your meat intake to once a day? To once or twice a week? It turns out, even small decreases in meat consumption like this lead to huge improvements in the environment. If the U.S. meat industry was stopped to a standstill for only one day, we would save 100 billion gallons of water, 150 billion tons of food used to support livestock (this could feed the state of New Mexico for more than a year), and avoid 1.2 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions. If we all scaled down our meat intake to once a day, it would lead to carbon dioxide savings equivalent to taking millions of cars off of our roads.
Little changes on the large scale do make a difference, and algal products, as versatile and nutritious additions to almost any food, are sure to play a part in facilitating this shift in the future.
For many, the most unattractive part of using algae as a protein source is not incorporating algae into their diets, but having to remove the things they like from it. Because of this, humanity as a whole is unlikely to stop eating meat. That’s why researchers at the California Center for Algae Biotechnology engineered a strain of algae to produce a protein called bovine heme. The word ‘bovine’ refers to cows, and ‘heme’ refers to the iron-rich molecule hemoglobin, which gives blood its red color and metallic taste. In essence, these scientists created an algae that produces cow blood, completely independent of cows.
Bovine heme is one of the major molecules that makes a burger taste like a burger, and when it’s algae-grown form was used in a plant-based burger patty that mimicked the shape and texture of a real burger, there was almost no reported difference in taste. This burger, entitled the Impossible Burger, is now selling with great success all across the country. The blood-red heme used in this burger even makes the burger appear to bleed!
Bioengineering these molecules that give the foods we love their signature taste is possible, and using algae as a platform, we could continue to indulge our guilty pleasures without doing harm to the environment. These new innovations in algae-based foods won’t stop the meat industry completely, but they will help scale it down to sustainable levels, and ensure an ever-growing population won’t go hungry or malnourished.
The UN expects the human population on earth to increase by 2.5 million people by 2050, and in order to feed everyone on earth, our food production will have to increase by 70%. The reality of our global situation today is this: we just don’t have the resources to scale up the existing industries. Agriculture and the meat industry, on the massive scales that they operate on, are hugely detrimental to our world, using up as much as 70% of our available fresh water, polluting the atmosphere with carbon dioxide and taking up land that could be used for development. We desperately need to rethink how we are producing food in the coming generations.
Luckily, algae offers us a powerful tool to do this.
The ease of algae
One of the best parts about algae is how easy it is to grow. Algae doesn’t need fresh water, like other crops, and can survive just fine in wastewater or saltwater, which often provide the nutrients it needs to flourish. It doesn’t require soil, shade or rainfall; as long as enough sunlight and water are provided, algae can grow in a desert. It grows quickly, and as it does, it eats carbon dioxide and produces oxygen, helping to scrub our atmosphere of greenhouse gases.
Growing algae in bioreactors, or large tanks that provide optimal conditions for growth, allow us to improve the efficiency and yield of algae, recycle water and nutrients, and use very little land and resources to produce large amounts of food. The production of algae is at little cost to us, provides us with nutrients, and even contributes to cleaning our environment; algae is the ultimate sustainable technology. But in an era of genetic engineering, we can make the process better still.
Every plant or animal used in large-scale industrial or agricultural production has been genetically modified through breeding, genetic engineering or selection to yield products that they would not have been able to produce before; this is the concept behind domestication. Engineering strains of algae, such as to be more productive photosynthesizers (and therefore produce more sugars, fats and oxygen), to yield more oil for biofuel production, or to overproduce nutrients for food, is what scientists now aim to do.
The following are some of the ways algae is being used as a platform for non-food resources; and shows how truly diverse their uses can be.
Algae as a biofuel
Fossil fuels, as non-renewable resources, will not last forever. In addition, the burning of coal, gas and petroleum that fuels our energy industry continues to pollute the atmosphere and drive climate change. It is imperative that we turn our attention to other energy sources, and algae offers us a potential avenue for cheap biofuels. Algae produces oils through photosynthesis and stores them in their cells, and this ‘crude algae oil’ can be refined rather easily into gasoline and diesel.
Considering fossil fuels like petroleum are just fossilized algae anyway (heated and cooked in the crust of the earth over millions of years), gasoline made from algae runs just as productively as petroleum-based products. And while biofuels can be produced from various sources (including corn, the main producer of bioethanol right now), the yield of fuel is significantly higher using algae than any other crop. In fact, it is estimated that algae farms covering an area about the size of New Mexico would produce all of the fuel necessary to replace the US’s annual usage of petroleum.
In 2009, Toyota released a car model known as the “Algaeus,” a variant of a Prius that runs entirely on algal biofuels. In 2011, a transatlantic flight between the U.S. and the United Kingdom became the first to ever be sustained entirely by algae-based jet fuel. ExxonMobil has been collaborating with genome-editing companies to create new strains of algae that produce up to 40% of their body weight in oil, which would lead to much higher biofuel yields, since 2009. They have since succeeded.
The problem here is not the technology itself; it is clear that we can already make efficient, clean and affordable biofuels from algae. It is the cost that holds us back: algal biofuels just do not yet beat the cheap cost of fossil fuels.
With an increasing population, our energy demand will continue to grow. This will put huge pressure on the fossil fuel industry, which is finite, and will continue to drive environmental degradation. For now, the cheap cost of liquid petroleum transport and use makes replacing this energy source difficult. To surpass this, we have to drive down the cost of algal biofuel production.
Right now, one of the biggest challenges biofuel production companies face is developing the right kind of algae that can both grow quickly and produce large quantities of oil for manufacturing. But progress is made every day, and in the next decade, producing and distributing algal biofuels will likely be as cheap as it is for liquid petroleum. When we reach this threshold, will we as a planet make this shift? Only time will tell.
Algae as a factory
As I introduced through the bovine heme example, algae can be genetically manipulated to produce compounds we are interested in. Considering algae are diverse and relatively simple, they offer a fantastic genetic engineering platform for us to manipulate, and of all of the uses of algae in the future, these techniques may lead to the most interesting.
Algae, put simply, can be thought of as an intermediate between humans and bacteria. They are less complex than us, but more complex than little bacteria, and these differences allow us to utilize them very efficiently.
As “biomanufacturers,” algae are not too different from other organisms that create products out of raw material: yeast make beer and bread, bacteria make cheese, and different yeasts ferment grapes into wine. Bacteria like E. coli can be used as workhorses to create proteins for our use, but their simplicity makes them only suited to create small and simple proteins. Chinese hamster ovary (CHO) cells, on the other hand, are mammalian cells that are used to create more complex proteins, but this process is extremely expensive, protein yield for many proteins is low, and cell lines often degrade quickly.
Algae, however, succeed in that they are simple enough for us to be able to manipulate their genes easily, but complex enough to manufacture complicated proteins like hormones, antibodies, immunotoxins, and industrial enzymes. Algae offers a valuable new platform for the cheap and efficient production of complex proteins for use in pharmaceuticals, nutrition, agriculture, and cosmetics, to name only a few.
The ease of algae growth comes in again here; with requirements as simple as light, carbon dioxide and water, algae can be grown easily and cheaply in the lab, genetically edited to produce a certain molecule, and can mass-produce it in a matter of weeks.
Of a $600 billion pharmaceutical industry, almost $100 billion (one sixth) of that comes from the protein therapeutic market, which produces specific protein therapies that can treat a variety of human diseases. Algae are increasingly being incorporated into these production scenarios.
Considering algae are actually edible and have no adverse effects on humans, using these systems instead of other cells to produce proteins can result in 80% decreases in manufacturing costs simply because they do not need to be processed and purified. Algae bioengineered to produce colostrum, a key protein in breast milk, is being ground into powder and incorporated directly into baby formula, delivering anti-microbial and protective functions to newborns as their immune systems mature. Algae are being engineered to produce vaccines, nutritional supplements, and a slew of other compounds that are expensive to synthesize in other systems.
The safety, scalability, low cost and manipulability make algae a truly wonderful platform to produce a variety of compounds, and we have just scratched the surface of their potential.
Algae can also create molecules called immunotoxins, which are antibodies (disease-fighters which can recognize a certain type of cell) that are coupled to potent toxins. Creating these molecules allows us to target certain cells (like cancer cells) and deliver the toxin to only these cells, leading to the cells’ death. It is a targeted system that allows us to selectively kill harmful cells, and has been extremely useful in cancer suppression treatments.
However, producing these immunotoxins is difficult and expensive, as most of the cells we use to make these toxins (mostly animal cells) are killed by the toxin itself and therefore cannot build up the molecule of interest. Therefore, the production of these molecules usually happens in bacteria, which are not affected by this “higher order” toxin. But algae contain chloroplasts, which have a bacteria-like design and are thus resistant to the toxins as well. Algae has proven to be a capable and efficient model in which to produce these molecules, and immunotoxins grown from algae have been used in successful tumor suppression trials in mice.
In summary, the use of algae in industry will revolutionize our world. It will clean our atmosphere, provide the human population with valuable nutrients and protein, and will be able to do this affordably in environments and countries that struggle to feed their populations. It will continue produce useful compounds for use in energy and medicine, and will hopefully contribute to developing sustainable practices in all areas of industry and slow the progression of climate change.
Someday, it may even feed colonies in space: its unique ability to grow on nothing but water, carbon dioxide and sunlight make it a great candidate for producing food off the earth, and its ability to scrub carbon dioxide from the air and increase oxygen levels make it even more appealing. Algae may be one of the technologies that follows us far into the future, and, with luck and a little bit of science, will change our world for the better.