By Kara Kennedy

THEY are microscopic single-cell organisms at the very base of the food chain and hard to spot with the naked eye. 

They can be used to grow food or make air, mop up human waste and even be converted into fuel. 

They’re in smoothies to make them nutritious, and they are what makes salmon pink. Now, marine biologists believe they can be used for cancer drugs, HIV treatment, vaccines and even sustaining life on Mars.

Yet, after all of this, nobody can really explain what algae are. When I posed this question at the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) in Dunstaffnage, I was met with momentary silence and blank expressions. “Ask the next person you speak to,” suggested one researcher. After doing exactly that, I was told, “it’s impossible to define in one sentence.”  The thing that the staff at SAMS agree wholeheartedly on when it comes to algae is the importance of to learning everything we can about it. “It’s weird and wonderful biology can offer us weird and wonderful solutions to problems,” claimed Dr David Green, a lecturer in Molecular Biology at the institute.  He cited how that algae could be cultivated for things like cancer drugs, HIV treatment and vaccines and added that, out of the 3000 strains at SAMS, only about 10 are currently being used commercially.  Researchers at SAMS are working on a new mission: space algae.  The aim is that algae will eventually accompany astronauts on three to six-month missions to the Moon, or even Mars. Its versatile nature means that it can be sent up in a seed state then reactivated while in space by adding water.  Algae are extremophiles – organisms that live in extreme environments, under high pressure and temperatures – and are well suited to space missions due to being naturally resilient and tough.  Whilst algae have already been dubbed as a potential engine of sustainability on Earth, this could soon stretch to outer space.  Dr Matt Davey of SAMS is leading the investigation and told The Herald that it could effectively be a one-stop-shop for multiple space needs.

He said: “We can learn from nature to innovate. In space, algae could be used for food, health supplements, oxygen or stimulants for plant growth.”  When I anxiously asked if there was a risk of the invasive species spreading across the entirety of the Moon, Dr Davey assured me that the process wouldn’t involve “scattering seeds randomly” but, instead, would mean replicating the processes that happen in the laboratory, in secured areas.  The team is testing the process on different strains of algae collected from the Antarctic in order to understand how it reacts to certain conditions.  Their lab, overlooking a loch in Dunstaffnage, may look like a relatively normal workspace for this field, but through computer-controlled machines that replicate different areas of the world, the algae are subjected to different light and temperatures and even experience simulations of dawn and dusk.  By doing this, Dr Davey and his team can deduce which algae is best suited for space missions, as it needs to survive cosmic radiation, hyper-gravity on launching and low gravity in space.

To unearth the revolutionary possibilities of this organism, the education section of SAMS, along with the University of the Highlands and Islands, has launched a new Master’s degree in Algal Biotechnology.  Their aim is to fill what they describe as a “potential skills gap” in this rapidly growing industry. The course leader, Dr Davey, assures me that there will be a module dedicated to space algae, meaning Mars and lunar missions accompanied by the uniquely adaptable organisms may be closer than we think.  The type of research carried out by Dr Davey would not be possible without access to the UK’s algal library which is based at SAMS.  The Culture Collection for Algae and Protozoa (CCAP) opened last month, at a cost of costing £681,641. The nearly 100-year-old collection is one of the oldest and most biodiverse in the world and has been labelled as a “botanical garden for algae.” Its oldest strain, Chlorella vulgaris, was isolated by a Dutch scientist in 1889 and is still being pumped around a photobioreactor today.   The algae library, which boasts around 3000 strains, is run by CCAP manager Dr Michael Ross.  “The new facility allows us to keep large volumes of the different types” he said, adding that this enables them to cultivate algae that can could be sent to universities, academics, and other industries to run comparative experiments. “It isn’t a competition,” he added, commenting that the full potential of algae will only be uncovered through collaboration.  It was in the 1920s that the collection of algae currently housed at SAMS began. Professor Pringsheim, a German mathematician, and his collaborators isolated a number of cultures at the Botanical Institute of the German University of Prague.  Over the years the collection moved to different locations, including Cambridge University and the Windermere Laboratory at Ambleside but, in 2004, the whole collection was relocated to Scotland.  The upkeep of algae is labour intensive, and the team at SAMS have a strict schedule to make sure they stay on top.  Karen MacKechnie, a support scientist at the centre, told The Herald that every group of algae has a different member of staff that is in charge of looking after it, in order to make sure that it doesn’t they don’t decompose.  Every few months the algae are re-potted in different test tubes and labelled with their specific strain.  Alongside her full-time job at SAMS, Ms MacKechnie also studies the Marine Science degree at the centre, after bagging the job without a background in science. While working in the hospitality sector, she applied for the job to gain someinterview experience in an in a different field.  Alongside everything else, SAMS investigates the community that surrounds the algae, such as coral reefs. Dr David Green explains claimed that the aim is to find out what can be done they can do with algae to that solve widescale problems, such as disease.  In order to crack the code, the algae must be broken down so that the blueprint of the organism can be read and then reassembled.  The work is done in collaboration with The Darwin Tree of Life project, which aims to sequence the genomes of all 70,000 species of eukaryotic organisms – meaning, anything with a defined nucleus – in Britain and Ireland.  The point of this, Dr Green David told me, is to map the population and in doing so we can understand when it may comes under threat, and identify different aspects of genomes that we can work with.

As well as microalgae, SAMS is also dedicated to the research of macroalgae or – as you and I know it – seaweed. Late last year, a seaweed academy was unveiled by the centre which is the only dedicated seaweed industry facility offering a complete package of training, education and business development.  Costing £407,000 through a grant from the UK Government’s Community Renewal Fund, it is one of 56 projects across Scotland to share £18 million in investment that is intended aim to help people to work toward and enable the UK to achieve net-zero carbon emissions.

Similarly to algae, SAMS hope that by creating their own seaweed farms and having up-to-date research, seaweed production could be a means of bioremediation (detoxifying), which can mitigate the impact of climate change.  According to SAMS, the seaweed industry is worth an estimated £12 billion a year globally after demand has have grown due to it being used everywhere thing from gourmet restaurants to farms as livestock feed. Before the growing demand in Europe, it said the vast majority of industry activity was in Asia.

The environmentally friendly aspect of seaweed means that it is becoming a viable option to replace unsustainable materials, like plastic and cotton, and the fact it is easy to grow makes it even more appealing. Innovative new food wrappings which are biodegradable are being made out of seaweed and, with endless possibilities, this could soon become a standard material in our daily lives.  In a world of finite resources and a demand for sustainability, micro and macro algae could well be the answer to some big questions for leading the green revolution.  With associations like SAMS finding ways to industrialise the organism in their “algae training schools” it may soon invade every area of our lives; it may soon fill our cars, cure diseases, become a staple on our dinner plates and may even be the key to life on Mars.