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Your next superfood might come from a volcanic hot spring

Wednesday, April 7th 2021, 8:00 pm - Food supplements from algae aren't new, but scientists in the Netherlands have perfected a method of cultivating a particularly nutrient-rich variety.

They're not just pretty to look at - the stygian landscapes on the edge of volcanic springs may be the source of the next big superfood, if some scientists have anything to say about it.

New research at Wageningen University in the Netherlands has identified a kind of nutrient-packed algae that often makes its home around hot volcanic springs, known as Galdieria.

Though the mineral-rich waters near the centre of volcanic springs are boiling or near-boiling, areas nearer the edges of such pools are cool enough to support abundant algae – in fact, they're often the source of the vivid reds, yellows and greens that make many springs, like the Grand Prismatic Spring of Yellowstone National Park, so iconic.

Jim Peaco Yellowstone prismatic spring Grand Prismatic Spring. Image credit: Jim Peaco/National Park Service.

Using particular kinds of bacteria to boost nutrient intakes isn't anything new: the researchers say a similar organism, Spirulina, has been a popular food supplement for decades. However, cultivating such algae while retaining their nutritional value can be costly and inefficient.

In the case of this new algae, lead researcher Fabian Abiusi says the trick is growing it in a special kind of apparatus known as mixotrophic photobioreactor, which provides the algae with light as well as an organic substrate, in this case.

"In a mixotrophic photobioreactor, you can couple the production of oxygen via photosynthesis to the consumption of oxygen in the cell’s metabolism," Abiusi said in a release from the university. "Similarly, almost all of the carbon dioxide produced by the microalgae is used again by the photosynthesis, making this process almost carbon neutral, and very efficient. You have double productivity, without the need for electric energy for aeration or carbon dioxide.”

As it happens, Galdieria is rich in amino acids, the building blocks of protein: Abiusi says amino acids make up two thirds of its dry weight, a higher portion than in meat, eggs and dairy products.

"These amino acids are limited in plants, which is one of the reasons that it is difficult for us to derive well-balanced nutrition from a plant-based diet," Abiusi says.

Beyond easing the transition to a plant-based diet, Abiusi says he's hopeful Galdieria can be used to improve general health and make better use of organic waste.

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