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Tuesday, December 20, 2016


If I had to select the scientific topic I know best, it would be bioproducts from microorganisms.  My PhD Dissertation investigated the effect of laser wavelengths and energy on E. coli in a microreactor.  One of my first research projects when I came to the University of Hawaii dealt with growing algae in a raceway.

In the later 1990's, in competition with more than a hundred universities, the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute was selected as the National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center for Marine Bioproducts.  We thus became the national headquarters for R&D on this subject.

Originally, research focused on growing algae for energy, as the Department of Energy has reported that algae could potentially produce up to 60 times more oil per acre than land-based plants.  What made the system particularly attractive is that the carbon dioxide from power plant effluents could be bubbled into the algae raceway, thus "killing two birds with one stone."

I led a Department of Energy sponsored study which suggested that the difficulty of the microbiotic process, including separating the oil from the microbe, was such that biofuels from microalgae could begin to compete with gasoline only if the price of oil was at least $125/barrel, although there were signs that unless there were significant breakthroughs, this cost could well be closer to $250/barrel, if not higher.  For a reason we could not fathom, there were companies selling the concept with flimsy data, but there was very little actual fundamental research being funded by the Federal government.  Our report was so pessimistic that we chose not to officially publish our conclusions.

I  did provide some thoughts in The Huffington Post in 2008:  Simple Solutions for Our Biofuel Problem.  Then, two years later I had a HuffPo entitled:  Biofuels from Microalgae (Part 1).  The more negative Part 2 became one of my postings in this blog site.

The point of this above analysis is two fold.  First, if petroleum remains below $100/barrel, forget biofuels from plants and microorganisms.  Secondly, microbes can efficiently convert sunlight to higher value products.

People are more and more consuming deep ocean fish like salmon and tuna because they have higher concentrations of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).  Oh, Alpha-Linolenic Acid (ALA) from plants (like flaxseed and hemp) are also good for you.  But why are these poly-unsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) so beneficial?  Essentially, all diseases have  a common connection to inflammation.  Omega-3 fatty acids (like DHA and EPA) reduce the inflammatory process, which lead to cancer, asthma, depression, cardiovascular disease and rheumatoid arthritis.  
  • In Sweden, fish-eating reduced the risk of prostate cancer. 
  • In the UK, children of mothers who ate more than 12 ounces of fish/week scored higher on IQ and relationships. 
  • O3s also help the brain, reducing the incidence of Alzheimer's disease and delaying cognitive decline.
But not all fatty acids are good.  Omega-6s, for example, are found in soybean, sunflower, corn,  and safflower, or in products like cookies and corn-fed beef.  We today consume 20 times more O6s as O3s.  The O6s PROMOTE INFLAMMATION!!!  The medical profession recommends eating two 8-ounce servings of fish each week.  But be a little careful of what type of fish, for albacore contains three times the mercury of chunk light tuna.

Hate to mention this, but nuts are high in O6s (per 1/4 cup):
  • Pine nuts  11.6 grams
  • Walnuts  9.5 g
  • Brazil nuts  7.2 g
  • Macadamia  0.5 g
So buy Hawaiian macadamia nuts!  Anyway, according to this article, nut-eating is still recommended, for these reasons.

Do fish produce their own DHA and EPA?  Apparently not.  The O3s come from algae they consume:

Algae is the originating source of all marine omega-3s. The National Geographic website explains that microalgae, also called phytoplankton is the primary food source for krill. Krill are tiny shrimp-like crustaceans that provide the main source of food for hundreds of marine animals. DHA is the prominent omega-3 found in algae which the February 2007 issue of “Nutrition Reviews” reports is converted by krill into the omega-3 fatty acid named EPA or eicosapentaenoic acid. Consequently all marine animals owe their EPA content to krill, and their combined DHA and EPA content to algae.

To quote from Wikipedia:

The fish used as sources do not actually produce omega-3 fatty acids, but instead accumulate them by consuming either microalgae or prey fish that have accumulated omega-3 fatty acids.

At one time, pharmacies sold DHA from krill.  But this has largely been taken off the market because of marine environmentalist concerns about whales, etc.  So another quote:

The answer was to go to the source, to algae. But not the algae that make the flax-type omega-3s; rather, the microscopic algae that make DHA itself. Cut out the middleman — or middle fish and middle krill, as it were. Raised-on-the-farm algae yield DHA that is sustainable and can carry the vegetarian label, as well as being eligible for certification as kosher and organic. Algae-derived DHA is approved for infant formulas and already is found in many applications, including fruit juices, milk, soy milk, cooking oil, sauces and tortillas.

Remember that terrible-tasting cod liver oil your mother might have foisted on you to see better and prevent rickets?  Turns out it  does have Vitamin A and Vitamin D, but, also, high levels of DHA and EPA.

In any case, the field of marine bioproducts has shifted from renewable energy to nutraceuticals, pills and oil supplements.  Companies are now growing algae to produce DHA and EPA.  This began a decade ago, but growth has been slow.  There is something trying about growing microalgae.  I know.  But I have a friend who became a billionaire by pioneering the commercialization of infant formula high in PUFAs.

Well, the stock market did it again, the Dow Jones Industrial Average again broke its all-time high, rising 92 to 19,975.  Will the 20,000 barrier be breached tomorrow?


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