Algae’s Napa Valley

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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.


“The reason microalgae haven’t been exploited before commercially is there has been no way to cultivate them on an industrial scale,” said David Watumull, executive vice president of Aquasearch. His company, founded by researchers at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and now headquartered at Keahole, is setting out to do just that.

“I think we’re on the cusp of a major breakthrough in growing microalgae as a source of high-value compounds, and Hawaii is the most logical place in the United States for this new industry,” he said.

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. Aquasearch is one of the program’s industrial partners, along with heavyweights Monsanto and Eastman Chemical.

Unlike bacteria and fungi, which multiply in steel vats, algae require light to grow. But only a handful of the microscopic plant species can thrive in the open air without risk of contamination. What is needed is a “photo bioreactor,” a transparent vessel that lets photosynthesis occur while regulating conditions such as temperature, acidity or alkalinity, nutrients and turbidity.

Until recently, scientists have relied on laboratory scale containers holding 20 to 100 liters at most. The newly expanded Aquasearch Growth Module can handle 25,000 liters, according to Watumull.


Aquasearch researchers tried the production system in California’s Borrego Desert, but it proved too expensive to heat and cool because of temperature extremes. So they set up shop at Keahole, where the temperature ranges from the low 70s to the low 80s, the sun shines more than at any other coastal location in the country, and the deep-sea water can be used to cool the microalgae production system efficiently.

“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 Aquasearch and 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. But both companies are growing a natural product that they plan to introduce soon to the human health market. Preliminary research suggests that astaxanthin helps prevent cancer, neuro-degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, and macular degeneration, a leading cause of blindness.

“It sounds like a snake oil--that this will help everything,” Watumull said with a grin. “But there’s actually a common thread among all these diseases, and that’s a damaging effect from oxygen-free radicals. Astaxanthin is a powerful antioxidant 100 to 500 times more powerful than vitamin E, depending on the test you apply.”

In the quarter-century since he got the Natural Energy Lab launched, John Craven has helped it forge into uncharted territory, and at the age of 74 he still shows a boyish enthusiasm for its future. He and gardener Jon Biloon have cultivated more than 100 temperate fruits and vegetables in their desert oasis. Corn reaches 10 feet in two months, and orchid plants that normally flower twice a year put out five sprays in six months, Craven says, although the results have not been documented scientifically.


He envisions his organic garden as part of a prototype for an ecologically sound, sustainable habitat. The deep-ocean water refrigerates his “chill house,” and, after it flows through the garden, it is used in conventional aquaculture tanks. It also activates a 30-foot “hurricane tower,” a desalination device he invented. This “rainmaker” simulates a hurricane, creating vapor from warm surface water at the bottom of the tower and condensing it with cold deep-ocean water at the top.

As Craven shepherded a group of schoolchildren through the premises recently, he told them it was up to their generation to take such newfangled notions and run with them.

“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?”