Seaweed may be the solution for Scotland’s natural-products industry
Synonymous with golf and whiskey, Scotland brims with something else that might one day help define this nation: seaweed. At least that’s the hope of biotechnology boosters Donald Fowler and Jim Brown.
Fowler, based in Argyll, is senior development manager for life sciences with the Highlands and Islands (HIE), a government economic and community development agency for the north and west of Scotland. Brown directs the annual Natural Product Biotechnology conference in Inverness.
“There’s a huge resource of kelp forest off the west coast,” Brown says. “The ocean currents are very favorable to us, and there are industrial-scale quantities of seaweed.” The currents bring a large brown algae species that is of particular interest, Fowler says, called Laminaria hyperborea—8 to 11 million tons of it, with sustainable annual yields of 100,000 to 200,000 tons. This bounty of seaweed is not only used in its raw form as organic fertilizer and an animal feed supplement, but also provides a gelling agent called alginate, made up of acids from its cell walls, which can be used in food processing. In fact, it was the Scottish chemist E.C.C. Stanford who discovered alginates in the 1880s.
Fowler and Brown support increasing seaweed harvests through the development of sustainable and “extensive farms for biorefining of alginates and other high-value chemicals with byproducts for biofuels,” Fowler says. Brown notes a “potential for a virtuous cycle” if these seaweed farms can be located near Scotland’s sprawling fish farms—salmon alone is a US$2 billion industry—to “tie in with environmental remediation.” That is, to sop up nitrogen from fish excrement. “There’s a real synergy there,” Fowler says, with “fish farm and seaweed side by side [and] with other species grazing on the seaweed that have a harvestable value as well—sea urchins, sea cucumbers.”
Researchers at Scottish companies have been investigating seaweed and its microscopic cousin, microalgae, for a variety of uses, Fowler explains, including nutritional supplements, anti-aging creams and other “cosmeceuticals,” or pharmaceutical-cosmetics hybrids. In addition, Scottish biotechnologists see other natural-product targets that fit today’s going-green philosophy. For example, the Scottish firm CelluComp converts vegetable processing waste from carrots and beetroot and other naturally derived waste products into pigments, specialty celluloses, coatings and rheology products.
Not surprisingly, Fowler points out, deriving products from nature fosters collaboration between academia and industry. Research partners include the University of the Highlands and Islands’s Scottish Association for Marine Science, the Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre and large companies like Unilever, Croda, DSM and BASF as well as more specialized ones, such as GlycoMar, which screens marine organisms for useful polysaccharide compounds and supplements.
Brown says the research-business crosspollination is beginning to pay off. At his first Natural Product Biotechnology meeting in 2009, 50 people showed up, mostly academics. “We thought we were doing quite well,” he says. But when the group met last fall, the gathering had swelled to more than 300 attendees, including 80 businesses—many of them casting an eye toward Scotland’s seaweed, its most abundant and undulating of natural resources.
Illustration by Nicolet Schenck
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