Researchers in Trondheim have recently succeeded in cultivating one of the world’s most valuable macroalgae species in a lab, raising hopes of a new Norwegian business venture.
The research work into the species red cellophane, known in Latin as Wildemania amplissima, is part of the so-called "NYMAT" (New Food) project. It is a joint effort involving research compnay SINTEF, the Austevoll Seaweed Farm, and Master Chef Ørjan Johannesen who won the gastronomic Bocuse d'Or competition in 2015.
SINTEF researcher Silje Forbord said Norway had all the attributes needed to be in the forefront of commercial macroalgae cultivation, and that red cellophane has great potential as a "superfood" that will tempt Norwegian palates.
"We have extensive experience in the cultivation of different kinds of macroalgae, and our hope is that red cellophane can become a key species in Norwegian aquaculture", she said. "There are currently about six or seven Norwegian firms engaged in seaweed cultivation, but the process has to be automated to boost profitability,” she added.
According to Forbord, the challenge ahead is to scale up the cultivation process and carry out large-scale production tests under marine conditions.
“Red cellophane is very nutritious and ideal both as food for humans and animal feed. However, this species has a very special life-cycle, so we're very excited that we've succeeded in cultivating it,” said marine biologist Andreas Quale Lavik at NTNU.
"In theory, our approach should be quite straightforward, but we've run into some challenges on the way," he conceded.
Red cellophane undergoes a so-called heteromorphic alteration of generations, meaning that the sexual and asexual stages of the life-cycle are very different.
Initially, the researchers isolated mature sex cells and placed them in Petri dishes under artificial light for six months. These developed into what is called the conchocelis phase. The next step was to change the lighting regime to induce the cells and enable them to produce new conchospores pores.
"After about two months, these conchospores succeeded in growing into new, individual plants,” said Lavik, who has dedicated his Master's thesis to researching into this process.
There are about 120 different species of red seaweeds worldwide, and at least seven of these can be found on Norwegian shores.
The algae has a very high protein content and is rich in vitamins and minerals. It has been cultivated in Asia since the 17th century.
The research team is hoping that in the near future, locally-sourced Norwegian seaweeds will provide feed for farmed fish. Currently, about 70% of fish feed is derived from Brazilian soya beans.
“Soya beans are rich in protein, but so too are Norwegian red seaweeds. It will probably be some years before we see extensive commercial forests of seaweeds along the Norwegian coast, but I'm convinced that that day will come,” said Lavik.