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Excerpts from an article in the Los Angeles Times: Thursday, August 12, 1999

Algae's Napa Valley
In Hawaii, conditions are perfect for growing microorganisms on an industrial scale for the first time, offering a source of compounds for health and nutrition, scientists say.

By SUSAN ESSOYAN, Special to The Times

KEAHOLE POINT, Hawaii--On a dramatic lava rock coastline that draws tourists from around the globe, researchers are mining a new scientific frontier that may help this island state broaden its economic base beyond sun and fun.

Scientists at the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii, just a few miles from the Big Island's luxury resorts, are exploring the humble world of microalgae with an eye toward drug discovery.

Pharmaceuticals have long been developed from compounds in terrestrial plants, bacteria and fungi, but the estimated 30,000 species of microalgae represent a relatively untapped source of compounds for health and nutrition....

At the Natural Energy Lab, cold salt water is pumped up from the depths of the ocean for a wide range of research and commercial uses, from raising clams and orchids to air-conditioning. But the projects with the most promise of diversifying the tourism-dependent economy involve marine biotechnology, a burgeoning field in which Hawaii has a natural edge thanks to its ocean resources and abundant sunshine.

The National Science Foundation recently awarded a $12-million grant to establish the Marine Bioproducts Engineering Center, a joint program of the University of Hawaii at Manoa and UC Berkeley. Based in Hawaii, it will bring scientists and engineers together to collect and grow microalgae and marine bacteria, and use them to develop drugs and other valuable products....

"We consider this the Napa Valley for microalgae," said Gerald Cysewski, president of Cyanotech Corp., which was founded in Seattle but relocated to Keahole. "This is the best place to grow it. People are culturing microalgae in Southern California and China, but those facilities have to shut down for three to four months a year because of cold weather or monsoons. Here, we have an advantage because we can work year-round."

A pioneer in the microalgae field, Cyanotech is the anchor tenant at the research and business park, and the nation's largest producer of Spirulina, a health food supplement packed with nutrients.

Tourists whose planes touch down at the Kona International Airport can see the company's huge rectangular ponds, tinged dark green by the microscopic floating plant. Because Spirulina likes a highly alkaline environment, it is one of the few microalgae that can grow in the open without competing with other species. Once harvested, it is chill-dried in seconds with deep-sea water before being processed into powder, tablets and flakes on site.

"The National Cancer Institute says we need five to seven servings of fruits and vegetables to get a critical level of photonutrients to protect against disease," Cysewski said. "Just one serving of Spirulina provides all those nutrients."

Although Spirulina is the company's chief product, Cysewski sees its future in using microalgae as "organic factories" to produce transgenic proteins to help fight disease and enhance the quality of life.

Microalgae are considered a better vehicle for such genetic engineering than land plants, because they are easy to manipulate, have short generation cycles and have cellular uniformity.

Cyanotech scientists, for example, are trying to create a pesticide by transferring bacterial genes that produce a mosquito toxin into blue-green algae, a food source for mosquito larvae. Scientists at ... Cyanotech are also excited about a microalgae-derived compound known as astaxanthin. Until now, the compound has been manufactured synthetically mainly for use in fish food... Preliminary research suggests that astaxanthin helps prevent cancer, neuro-degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's, and macular degeneration, a leading cause of blindness....

"This is a place for pioneering new ideas," said Barbara Lee, marketing specialist for the Natural Energy Lab. "Who knows what will turn up tomorrow?"

Copyright 1999 Los Angeles Times. All Rights Reserved.

Bruce Russell: [email protected]
(310) 559-4955 x101


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