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The little unicellular photosynthetic engine that could

By Paul Greenberg, Safina Center Fellow

Algae cultures growing at New York’s Urban Assembly Harbor School oyster lab. Photo: Paul Greenberg

My work being what it is, every year or so I find myself in a room packed tight with human-size tubes of algae. The colors range from burnt sienna to electric Kool-Aid-green. Quietly and humbly they do their work, converting sunlight to sugars and proteins, befuddling researchers with their multitudes, inviting we “advanced” humans to poke around and try figure out exactly what else we might do with these fantastical creatures.

For there’s quite a lot they already do, even if we know so very little. They make available to us half of the world’s breathable oxygen, and an equally impressive amount of the world’s carbon at one time or another passes through their membranes. One species of micro algae a creature, called Prochlorococcus, is the most abundant living thing on earth. It contains four times as many genes as human DNA—genes that could address numerous ecological problems if humans could only figure out a way to properly manipulate them. Prochlorococcus is one of the primary ways solar energy enters the ocean food web and gets transferred to higher life.

Thirty years ago, we didn’t even know Prochlorococcus existed. 

To date, we have only really nibbled around the edges of the possibilities. Where I most often stumble upon these quietly bubbling tubes of algae is in facilities related to aquaculture particularly the growing of shellfish.

The story of algae’s most successful taming to date is intimately intertwined with a Russian émigré named Victor Loosanoff. Loosanoff grew up in Moscow, raised in a Russian aristocratic culture that was cut short in 1918 when Lenin seized power. After briefly fighting the Bolsheviks, he fled across Siberia, made his way to Alaska and then paid his way south to Seattle by working on fishing boats and bare-knuckle-boxing through the savage lumber camps of the Pacific Northwest. After teaching himself English he alighted at the fisheries program at the University of Washington.

Victor Loosanoff at his Yale University office. Photo: J.B. Engle

It was there that he fell in love with shellfish in general and oysters in particular, a passion that would lead him programs and, in 1931, to a ramshackle research outpost in Milford, Connecticut. Once installed in Milford, Loosanoff set about building a shellfish research operation and true to his early military discipline, he ruled with an iron fist. He developed dozens of different lines of inquiry and assembled a staff that cowered at his approach.

“He would make the rounds every day,” a chief of research at the Milford lab told me. “If you didn’t have something new when he came and visited with you, he would throw a fit. He was a very hot-tempered individual.” Upon his retirement, one bullied researcher assembled all of Loosanoff ’s published scientific papers in a single gilt-edged volume embossed with the private nickname employees had given the author out of both respect and scorn:

“Le Bastard.”

But Loosanoff ’s brutal demeanor yielded results. It was under Loosanoff ’s direction that researchers combed through hundreds of species of algae and determined which of those species were best for nourishing young oysters and other shellfish. Loosanoff helped the researchers figure out how to isolate those algae species and grow them in a sterile culture that could then be used as starter food for oyster nurseries everywhere. This technique, which came to be known as the “Milford Method,” was to become a key engine for oyster aquaculture throughout the world. Now human-cultured micro-algae form not only the basis for shellfish aquaculture, they also are the basis for an algae to zooplankton to larval fish human controlled food chain that now results in an aquaculture industry that just a few years ago blew past the amount of fish produced in the wild. Without algae at the bottom of it all, none of it could have moved forward.

And yet, this really is just the beginning for the little unicellular photosynthetic engine that could, something I was appraised of recently when I flew into Midland Texas to meet an algae entrepreneur named Isaac Berzin

“I always say, ‘This is a reminder to be good in this life. Because this is what hell feels like.’ ”

Heat rose in wavy filaments from the roadbed. And as if to remind you that fossil-fuel-driven climate change was behind a good portion of that heat, oil wells were everywhere. Next to playgrounds, alongside strip malls, in school parking lots, in private owners’ backyards, like those dipping birds one sees at curio shops, dipping and dipping into the ground, pulling up more and more crude, helping make Midland’s temperature rise to 112 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade on a July afternoon. Never before have I seen the cause and effect of climate change so closely juxtaposed.

That Berzin would greet me with a suggestion to be good or face the consequences of hell was very much in keeping with his passions.

“Look, the original plan,” he told me as we shot down the arrow-straight road toward Imperial, Texas, “was not to make omega‑3s. Not at all. What we wanted to make was jet fuel.” This is not such a crazy idea when you consider where our modern-day petroleum comes from. Ultimately most petroleum is fossilized algae. Indeed, when Berzin ran his Nannochloropsis algae (“nanno,” as he lovingly calls it) through a gas chromatograph, he immediately saw two large spikes on the carbon graph for C16:0 and C16:1…the very carbon chains that are the stuff of high-energy fuel.

Algae paste. Photo: Paul Greenberg

By 2006, Berzin’s trials showed the potential to generate an economically credible amount of fuel from an algae farm. He even got grants from the U.S. Department of Energy to move the project forward. But eventually the project crashed and burned. A global petroleum glut had just hit the world, and suddenly oil had fallen to below $60 a barrel. Algal oil, while a genius and ultimately sustainable idea, could not survive in the economic environment of subsidized ethanol and full- ore petroleum exploration.  What Berzin really wanted to make was a new kind of fuel that would help the world avoid the worst ravages of global warming. But what he realized was he would have to find a more viable economic hook on which to hang his algae idea. It was then that he returned to the gas chromatographs and considered what else algae had to offer. Along with the peak for the C16 molecules he wanted to burn as jet fuel, there was a second peak even higher for C20:5. When he looked into those peaks he realized they represented the presence of molecules that had a high commercial value: EPA and DHA omega‑3 fatty acids.

Berzin set out to learn more. He read about all the effort and potential environmental disruption that was being caused by mining the oceans for these molecules. Roughly 1/4 of all fish caught in the world are ground down and used either for aquaculture feed or dietary supplements. Peruvian anchoveta, menhaden, herring of all stripes–all of it boiled down into dust and oil. Berzin realized algae might be able to the job equally well. He happened to recall a key story from his university days about the discovery and production of the diphtheria vaccine. When diphtheria was first isolated in the early twentieth century, the medium that was used for incubating the vaccine was the blood of live horses. Initial plans for mass production of the vaccine required the killing of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of animals. Eventually, though, an artificial pathway was found and the vaccine was cultivated in the laboratory. The “middleman” of the horse, as Berzin called it, was cut out entirely. The vaccine became cheap, efficient, and widely available, and millions of lives were saved.

What if, Berzin wondered, you could do the same with omega‑3 fatty acids—cut out the middleman? Remove the Peruvian anchoveta and Chesapeake Bay menhaden from the whole process? What if you could go right to the source of the very organisms that made omega‑3s, the very creatures at the bottom?  Berzin’s narrative converged with our arrival at the algae farm itself. Located just off the highway was a small encampment of aluminum trailers adjacent to covered sluices of green water. 

Leading me to a hydraulic lift, Berzin strapped us into harnesses, pushed a button, and raised us high above the algae farm. 

Algae farm, Imperial, Texas. Photo: Paul Greenberg

“All of this water here is brackish–unusable for traditional agriculture.” 

It turns out that the land we were surveying was land already wrung dry by modern American land food agriculture. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries much of it had been in corn and cotton and the aquifer beneath it had been ruined. As is happening to aquifers all over the United States, and indeed all over the world, the water had turned uselessly salty from too much irrigation. Aquifers can be drained only so much before the prevailing mineral profile of the surrounding land taints them. For human nutrition it was now a dead zone. Nothing could grow there. Nothing, that is, except algae. 

Because the types of algae Berzin had selected can tolerate a wide range of salinity, the brackish aquifer was perfect for them. Moreover, because it comes from underground sources, the water can be seeded with a culture of the particular EPA- rich strain of algae Berzin prefers without being infected by competing algae. But when I asked him if there wasn’t something more he could do with all this inventiveness her nearly exploded with excitement.

“These algae are 40 percent protein!” 

“So?” 

He pushed the button on the crane, dropped us down to earth, and rushed me into one of his trailers. There he put on a PowerPoint presentation, brought up a slide, and toggled me through the ten-thousand-acre expanse of human agriculture and animal husbandry. “First you have cattle. Five hundred acres and four hundred tons of carbon to bring a kilogram to the plate. Now look at pigs, a little better, but still, not very good. Now here’s chicken, still lots of acres, lots of land needed, lots of water. Soybeans, not much better than chicken. Kind of surprising, right? 

“Now, look here. Look at the algae. One acre produces almost ten thousand tons of protein per year. With a soybean you have to grow an entire plant with leaves and stems, etcetera, to get this one seed. With algae you use the whole thing. The oil goes into the omega‑3 supplement. The protein goes into artificial meat products. And that’s it.” 

“So you’re saying it could be a kind of…food?”

“Yes. I’m saying Texas, the place that produces this longhorn cattle, this beef that Americans love, that this is not the right thing for this land now. Believe me. I am from Israel. Israel I like to call the canary‑in‑the-coal-mine country. All of the things the world is about to experience— heat, lack of freshwater, food insecurity— it already hit Israel. And I’m telling you that this— this, my nanno, this thing, is the only solution that we have.”

“And if petroleum ever gets any more expensive?”

“If oil gets more expensive, we can beat them too. Who needs oil wells when you have nanno?”

The sun had arced lower in the sky, dissipating the heat ever so slightly and suggesting that it was time to shoot back down the arrow- straight highway from Imperial to Midland to catch my evening flight. We sped away from the algae farm, on toward town with oil wells pumping on either side of us. We passed the occasional herd of beef cattle that had only now ventured out from beneath the few isolated shade trees. Both of them, the cows and the oil wells, seemed, in the beam of Isaac Berzin’s bright intellect, shadows of an increasingly out‑of‑date way of thinking— fossils of another era that he and his omega‑3‑rich algae could someday make entirely irrelevant. 

Paul Greenberg is the author, most recently, of The Omega Principle, due out in paperback from Penguin Press on July 8th.

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