Besides sea lettuce, the team will also explore the potential of other algal species, such as kelp and red algae. The University of Waikato will lead the project, which will commence in September.
In an interview with NutraIngredients-Asia, lead researcher Dr Marie Magnusson shared that previous research on Ulva seaweed, which is closely related to the sea lettuce found in the Bay of Plenty, had displayed the ability to "treat metabolic syndrome, including weight reduction and improved cardiovascular health".
For instance, Ulva seaweed had reduced total final body fat mass by 24%, lowered systolic blood pressure by 29 mmHg, and improved glucose utilisation and insulin sensitivity in rats that had diet-induced metabolic syndrome.
As such, it is likely that the algae at the Bay of Plenty will also display similar properties, said Dr Magnusson.
"Seaweed extracts have also repeatedly demonstrated anti-inflammatory and antioxidant activities. There is also large potential in the manufacture of new bio-materials, mainly from the complex carbohydrates present in these seaweeds," she added.
She believes there is scope for algae to be made into whole seaweed tablets similar to cyanobacterial and microalgae tablets, supplements based on extracts or concentrates of specific components of the biomass, or incorporated as ingredients into functional foods and beverages.
The project is currently slated to run for five years. During the initial stages, researchers will examine options for growing macro algal species like kelp and sea lettuce alongside existing mussel farms.
Afterwards, researchers will extract valuable bio products for multiple uses, including in fertilisers, animal feed supplements, and cosmetics.
When asked if consumers would be persuaded that a "nuisance" sea lettuce could improve their health, Dr Magnusson explained that something that is considered a nuisance is not inherently bad — "it only means it is exceptionally good at growing under particular conditions, and usually where you do not want it to grow".
"There is also precedence for consumer acceptance in the consumption of tablets of whole cyanobacteria and microalgae specifically for their health benefits, and I certainly think there is scope for expanding this to include seaweed that is locally produced and processed."
New Zealand's aquaculture industry was worth nearly NZ$500m in 2015, and is estimated to grow to $1bn by 2025, with the project aiming to contribute significantly to that growth.
The University of Waikato has pledged NZ$9m to the project, while the New Zealand government will commit NZ$4m over five years. The initiative is expected to bring 15 to 20 world-leading researchers and their teams to New Zealand over the next three years.
Dr Magnusson added that industry players have expressed their interest in the project, and that Kiwi and Māori businesses in the region will be a priority.
Another aim of the project is to secure a more reliable supply of seaweed that does not depend on the wild harvesting of natural resources.
"We will also be researching methods of controlled aquaculture of target species of seaweed, and how these can implemented under New Zealand conditions," said Dr Magnusson.