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jueves, 21 de enero 2021
21/01/2021
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Generales

Miniature Biofactories

by Natalia Piedrahíta Tamayo
Journalist

Colombia's Gulf of Urabá has the qualities to become an important microalgae supplier. Microalgae are a natural and economically efficient resource that, paired with biotechnology research, offer great possibilities for sustainable development, human nutrition and the promotion of diverse sectors of production.


Spirulina platensis is a species of blue-green microalgae with high nutritional value and pharmacological of interest. Photo: Lorenzo Portillo Cogollo.

Oils, proteins, phytopharmaceuticals, biofuels, food for animals, biofertilizers, anti-aging products, alternatives for water decontamination...All of that can be derived from microalgae, a natural resource with high added value. If paired with scientific and technological knowledge, microalgae may be the starting point for important advances.

Even though work with these microorganisms on an industrial scale is currently a challenge in Colombia, their potential is real. "In Colombia, we are destined to explore sustainable development through them since they are single-cell factories, which means they are unique biofactories that generate the materials necessary to conserve forests, feed animals and promote green businesses", said Lucía Atehortúa Garcés, director of Universidad de Antioquia's Biotechnology Research Group (Investigación Biotecnología). She also pointed out that microalgae meet 11 of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Atehortúa Garcés is a member of the Scientific Committee for Antioquia's Climate Emergency (Comité Científico para la Emergencia Climática de Antioquia), announced by the Governor's Office on September 17 2020. The committee is made up of 14 members, four of which are researchers of Universidad de Antioquia. For 20 years, the group led by Atehortúa has developed a bank of multiple microalgae species for research and product development in areas such as cellulose nanocrystals, lipids and hydrocarbons, and polysaccharides and pigments. In the first stage around the year 2000, the farming was devoted to advancing biodiesels since these little factories produce fatty acids and hydrocarbons similar to oil. With some cracking, they can be turned into a substance similar to gasoline.

Aquaculture and Nutrition Allies

Fish and soybean oils, for example, have been used to guarantee the feeding of alevins, a primary supply in aquaculture. However, the use of such products is prioritized for human nutrition, which is why microalgae emerge as an effective alternative for fish farming.

In addition, microalgae are useful for fertilizing ponds since alevins can catch them with their bodies and enhance certain capacities and qualities. "Some fishes are a certain color for genetic reasons, but other fishes, such as the salmon and red porgy, get their typical reddish pigmentation from eating crustaceans or other carotenoid-consuming organisms–microalgae", highlighted Stephanie Carvajal Acevedo, who graduated from the Faculty of Exact and Natural Sciences.

On the other hand, microalgae, along with bacteria, may be used to treat wastewater rich in organic and inorganic matter generated by fish farming. This consortium of microorganisms is able to restore wastewater in a sustainable way and generate new biomass and bioproducts that can be included as food for fish. This application of microalgae drives the aquaculture industry to develop in a profitable and environmentally responsible way.

In Carvajal Acevedo's view, Colombia has the qualities to be a world major supplier of microalgae since it has no seasons and is rich in water resources. This is all related to farming possibilities as well. "The investment made in microalgae farming pays for itself. If 80% of production goes to consumption, and 20% is preserved, microalgae regenerate", she stated.

Microalgal Biodiversity in Antioquia's Sea

Coscinodiscus sp. seen through a microscope. Photo taken using microscopy. Drop of water from the Gulf of Urabá's Atrato River mouth. Photo/Record: SIU. Photo: Lorenzo Portillo Cogollo.

In 2016, a study into the microalgal diversity of Urabá's sea was carried out. It was inspired by the phenomenon of bioluminescence that took place in the gulf of this Antioquia region. The questions that arose from such a visual wonder drove the members of the Oceans, Climate and Environment Research Group (Grupo de Investigación Océanos, Clima y Ambiente–OCA) to monitor the phenomenon. The OCA Group is led by Ocean Engineer Lennin Flórez Leiva MSc in the Ocean Sciences Campus.

The team performed a series of studies known as Tarena Expedition to track the plankton present in the region. The idea of exploring the Gulf of Urabá's microalgal biodiversity emerged from that project through Engineer Lorenzo Portillo Cogollo's dissertation.

Aided by the Biotechnology Research Group, led by Professor Atehortúa, Portillo Cogollo managed to put together a more complete catalogue of the microalgae present in about 80 km of Antioquia's sea. The result is a Gulf of Urabá's microalgae inventory, in which over 100 species are detailed. Its publication is underway in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"It's an ecosystem rich in microalgae. It has diatoms for fish farming, cyanobacteria for fertilizing systems and so on. However, more studies are needed to detail other probable uses", Portillo Cogollo explained. He warned that he is not talking about a simple list but a catalogue that includes characteristics and pictures.

Spirulina —Arthrospira platensis— is a species of microalgae rich in proteins, vitamins and minerals. Its pigments may have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. Since it's highly nutritious and so easy to grow that it can be taken even to remote areas, it may be a solution for contexts of want and hunger. In Chile's Atacama Desert, the project Spirulina Mater stands out since it takes farming ponds to those desert areas. That might be a beacon for Colombia to assess the possibility of setting up something similar in regions like La Guajira.

 
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