“Super Seaweed” from TAU produces natural health compounds and medicine

Underwater seaweed garden at Bat-Yam, Israel. Photo: Doron Ashkenazi.

Organic material from the sea can be used in the superfood, pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries of the future

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Researchers from Tel Aviv University (TAU) and the Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research Institute (IOLR) have succeeded in significantly increasing the ability of seaweed to produce healthy natural materials. Their research findings may serve the pharmaceutical, cosmetics, food, and nutritional supplement industries.

The new methods enhanced the production of bio-active compounds that offer medical benefits to humans, such as antioxidants, the concentration of which was doubled in the seaweed; natural sunscreens, the concentrations of which tripled; and unique protective pigments of great medical value, which were stimulated by ten-fold.

The study was carried out with the innovative and sustainable approach of integrated aquaculture, combining seaweed with fish cultivation. This method benefits the seaweed while at the same time helping to purify the seawater and minimizing negative environmental impacts.

Ph.D. student Doron Ashkenazi of TAU and the Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research Institute, under the guidance of Professor Avigdor Abelson of TAU’s School of Zoology and Professor Alvaro Israel of the IOLR in Haifa, led the research. The findings were published on December 7, 2022, in the journal Marine Drugs.

“Seaweeds, also known as macroalgae, are marine plants that form the basis of the coastal marine ecosystem,” Ashkenazi explains. “The seaweeds absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen into the environment, purifying the water and providing food, habitat and shelter for numerous species of fish and invertebrates.

“Seaweeds also produce a wide variety of distinct bio-active compounds that are beneficial to humans. The seaweed living in the intertidal zone face extreme stress conditions, which include changes in salinity, temperature, desiccation conditions, changes in the availability of nutrients, and high exposure to solar radiation, especially in the ultraviolet range. In order to survive, the seaweed have developed a unique set of chemical defense mechanisms – natural chemicals that help them cope with these harsh environments.

“One could say that seaweeds are highly efficient natural factories for the production of valuable substances that may offer significant benefits to humans.”

In a previous study, the same group of researchers developed an innovative technology that enables the growth of seaweed enriched with proteins and minerals such as zinc, iron, iodine, magnesium and calcium. In the current study, they sought to examine whether and how it is possible to increase and maximize the seaweed’s production of bio-active compounds and secondary metabolites that offer significant health benefits. These substances include antioxidants, protective pigments and natural UV radiation filters.

To this end, they established an original and practical cultivation approach, in which three local kinds of seaweed were grown alongside fish effluents, and subsequently exposed to various abiotic conditions (stressors), namely high irradiance, nutrient starvation, and high salinity. The researchers investigated how these changes affected the concentration of specific valuable biomaterials in the seaweed, with the aim of enhancing their production.

The results showed impressive increases in their concentrations. “We developed optimal cultivation conditions and invented a new and clean way to increase the levels of healthy natural bio-active compounds in seaweed to an unprecedented level,” says Ashkenazi. “We in fact produced ‘super seaweed,’ tailor-designed to be utilized by the emerging health industries for food and health applications.”

Using their approach, the researchers believe that in the future it will be possible to  elevate additional natural materials in seaweed with important medical properties, such as anti-cancer, anti-diabetic, anti-inflammatory, anti-viral and anti-biotic substances. Furthermore, the current methodology has the potential to be applied in the global aquaculture seaweed industry and can help promote the State of Israel as a leading power in seaweed biotechnology.

The researchers also emphasize that seaweed aquaculture is environmentally-friendly, preserving the ecological balance, reducing environmental risks by minimizing excessive amounts of anthropogenic nutrients and other pollutants, reducing the emission of greenhouse gases, and lowering the carbon footprint. In this way, seaweed aquaculture can help cope with global environmental challenges such as pollution, habitat loss and the climate crisis.

“In the future, humanity will focus on creating science-based environmental solutions, such as the one we offer in the current study: technologies that promote recycling and the sound use of natural resources without overexploiting them,” Ashkenazi concludes. “The study demonstrates, in a practical manner, how we can utilize nature without harming it. Just as the seaweed suggest, we can learn from nature how to preserve it, and thus live and prosper alongside it.”

The study was conducted in collaboration with other leading researchers from Israel and around the world, including Guy Paz from IOLR; organic chemistry expert Dr. Shoshana Ben-Valid; Dr. Eitan Salomon from the National Center for Mariculture in Eilat; and Prof. Félix López Figueroa, Julia Vega, Nathalie Korbee, and Marta García-Sánchez from Malaga University in Spain.