The algae are single celled slimy blue-green to black matter thinner than human hair and needs just a bit of water, sunlight and nutrients to grow. The seaweed for instance is a larger form of algae. Microalgae are organisms less than 0.4mm in diameter present in plankton, with simple cell structure, quick growth rate and high oil content.
Algae offers the best prospects for biotechnology research in terms of diversity of species as there are more than two hundred thousand species of algae. Algae are representative of perhaps the oldest vegetable organisms on earth dating back to the Precambrian era. Different organic and inorganic substances can be obtained from algae such as proteins, vitamins, carbohydrates and fatty acids. They can even be used as a source of hydrogen. So the utility value of algae in research and in different industries is increasing by the day.
Just as renewable fuels can be made from corn and other biomass, algae can also be used as a feedstock to make renewable fuels. The advantage is, unlike corn and other food crops algae does not find use as a food item and grows faster than other food crops..
Interestingly algae can be cultivated in open ponds or arid areas that are otherwise unsuitable for agriculture. In comparison to land based plants, every hectare of algae gives five times as much biomass with forty percent more oil that can be used for making biodiesel in a carbon neutral manner. Using closed photobioreactors algae can be converted to biomass to be processed further to biofuels.
Today algae bioreaction systems are available that can use flue gases from manufacturing industries and convert it to biofuel at the site of effluent disposal. The process works as follows. Micro algae are suspended in fresh or recycled water with nutrients and exposed to sunlight. The waste gases from the smokestack are passed through this bioreactor and the algae consumes the carbon dioxide through photosynthesis. Nitrogen oxide is also decomposed. An algael cake is made from this media and the used water is recycled back to the bioreactor. This algal cake can be used to extract oil or converted to biofuels like ethanol, biodiesel etc.
Interestingly a 50-50 blend of ordinary jet fuel and algae derived biofuel has been successfully used in commercial jet aircraft.
As carbon sinks
The fact that algae can effectively absorb carbon dioxide emissions has been made use by culturing these algae in bioreactors to take out carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide at the source where it emanates. The market leader in algae bioreaction systems that absorb carbon emissions is Green Fuel Technologies Corporation.
Algae have certain properties that find use in cosmetics. For example, it could block UVA-induced up-regulation of MMP-1 and cytokine IL-6 (photo-aging markers). An example is the line of Homeosta-Sea cosmetics made by Atrium Biotechnologies.
Ingredients made from algae could also induce markers such as transglutaminase-1 for skin barrier formation in keratinocytes. Another interesting application of algal extracts is in hair care products. For example, Ichimaru Pharcos Company Limited is about to launch a product Algae Filmer that can enhance hair strength and retain moisture.
The algae that are used most in cosmetics are agarum cribosum, laminaria, Chlorella vulgaris and chlorella pyrenoidosa. The skin major Phytomer have incorporated several ingredients of marine origin in their products, especially algae. The algae Chondrus crispus is used as a stabilizer in milk products and is also used in toothpastes and lotions.
Algae for genetic research
Chlamydomonas reinhardtii is an extremely adaptive algae found in all types of soil and water (fresh water and brackish water) and in all kinds of diverse environments as for example even in the Antarctic and arctic regions. Due to this algae's adaptability, and the fact that its chloroplast genome has been sequenced, it is of importance in research purposes especially for genetics research.
Cyanidioschyzon merolae was the first algae to have its genome sequenced.
All plants inhale carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen. But the algae Chlamydomonas reinhardtii when deprived of sulfur can be made to switch off this process of photosynthesis and instead produce hydrogen renewably from sunlight and water. This means that in a closed photobioreactor, hydrogen can be made using algae. Through genetic engineering a new light green strain of algae with truncated chlorophyll antennae within the chloroplasts has been created having increased energy efficiency in making hydrogen.
Although the process of making hydrogen from algae is in a developmental stage, it is surely promising.
Arthrospira platensis and Arthrospira maxima that belong to the spirulina family of blue-green algae have been used to produce spirulina (human and animal food supplements). In humans, spirulina can reduce serum cholesterol levels, treat hay fever, can be used as a prebiotic and as a liver tonic.
Algae are inexpensive medium to make therapeutic proteins as compared to bacterial protein production that requires denaturation and renaturation steps that add to the costs. They can be used to produce the High Mobility Group Protein B1 (HMG-1), Vascular Endothelial Growth Factor related proteins (VEGF), human proinsulin, and domain 14 of human fibronectin. The reason why algae are cheap medium is because they get energy from sunlight and their nutritional needs are minimal as opposed to mammalian cell culture that needs costly fermentation facilities.
Brown and red algae as for example kelp and sargassum are used in oriental Chinese medicine. Therefore algae are truly a versatile substance from the biotechnology point of view.
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