THE consumption of algae by livestock and poultry may provide a solution to one of the great deficiencies in the modern human diet.
What has scientists and health professionals excited is that algae produced in heterotrophic conditions contains the 'good' omega-3 fatty acid DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). DHA is recognised as having a large impact on brain and eye development and health, heart health, and immunity. It is also a primary structural component of the cerebral cortex, skin, sperm and testicles.
But it not about the population taking another synthesised supplement. Livestock and poultry that consume algae containing DHA express DHA in their meat, milk and eggs. In this way, DHA can be consumed 'naturally'.
The inclusion of DHA in meat, milk and eggs has the potential to deliver farmers a health-linked marketing edge for their products on the supermarket shelves.
According to Alltech's algae expert Csaba Kenez, who attended Alltech's recent global event in Deauville, France, omega-3 fatty acids, and in particular DHA, were previously provided in the human diet through fish. However, dwindling global fish stocks and dietary shifts away from fish have seen the intake of DHA significantly reduced.
"Of course, there is also the immediate benefit to livestock," Mr Kenez said.
"Animals consuming DHA benefit from algae not only as a nutritional source, but also directly from DHA in terms of fertility and herd health."
Alltech's global director of research Becky Timmons said there were estimated to be 800,000 to a million species of algae.
Some 15,000 novel compounds had been developed from the incredibly diverse organism.
Algae are the fastest growing plant organisms in nature and have the ability to convert large amounts of carbon dioxide into oxygen.
"Algae is easily manipulated and protein levels of 40 to 60 per cent are typical,' Dr Timmons said.
"It can contain oil from 2 to 50pc and even up to 70pc, carbohydrates of 4 to 70pc, nucleic acid of 1 to 10pc, and it is rich in vitamins."
Dr Timmons said DHA had long been included in infant formula.
"But after the age of two when toddlers generally stop drinking formula, the intake of DHA drops to virtually zero," she said. "The average recommended intake is 150mg/day. The actual intake is only 19mg.
"DHA in meat, milk and eggs has the ability to change human health and change the value of the products farmers sell."
DHA extracted from fish oil has added to some milk products.
However, a 'fishy' aftertaste can affect consumer acceptance.
According to Dr Timmons, meat, milk and eggs produced by animals and poultry that have consumed algae with DHA have no such taste issues.
There are two methods of producing algae. Autotrophic algae is powered by photosynthesis and is generally low in DHA production and difficult to control in a commercial situation. Heterotrophic algae is grown in controlled conditions and is the focus of a massive production facility owned by Alltech near Lexington, Kentucky. The facility houses a variety of sizes and types of fermenters.
Algae production starts with inoculation of a flask in the lab. A dense culture of algae cells is grown in the flask and then transferred to a seed fermenter. A dense cell culture is grown again and then transferred to a larger seed fermenter.
This process continues until the cell culture is large enough to inoculate one of the eight-storey tall production fermentation tanks. When the algae are ready to be harvested, they are transferred to the centrifuges to remove most of the growth solution, and then to the spray dryers where they are turned into powder.
Algae has played a critical role in the development of the planet.
The earth's atmosphere had no oxygen before algae evolved. Instead it consisted of carbon dioxide and methane. Photosynthetic algae converted carbon dioxide into biomass and released oxygen into the atmosphere. Today, algae still produce 70pc of the earth's oxygen.
Algae is the base of the aquatic food chain, producing carbohydrates, oils, protein, vitamins and organic minerals.
"Since they are aquatic, algae grow much faster than land plants as they do not have to expend energy growing roots and cellulose support structures like trunks, leaves and stems. Without the need for support structures, algae can triple or quadruple their biomass every day.
"This rapid growth means that 1 acre (0.405ha) of algae can produce the same amount of protein in a year as 8.5ha of soybeans or 20ha of corn."