My name is Jonas Collén; I grew up in Sweden, the Baltic was my Ocean and seaweeds were smelly things found on the beach or a nuisance that got tangled onto our fishing nets. After my biology studies at Uppsala University and meeting a very enthusiastic professor, Marianne Pedersen, I ended up doing a PhD in Plant Physiology working on the physiology of seaweed. Almost everyone in Sweden was astonished with the idea of working with algae: “Varför alger?”. Same thing during my post-doc at the University of Maine, USA, “Why working on pond scum?” Next stop was Sao Paulo, Brazil, for another post-doc and the same reactions “Por que trabalhar com algas?”. I finally ended up in Brittany, France, twenty years ago partly because of the reactions of people when I described what I was doing: “Mais, c’est formidable!, what do you think about growing seaweed and green tides?” In Brittany, there is a tradition of using algae as food, fodder and fertilizers, so many people understood that working on the physiology of macroalgae had a meaning.
" This photo displays me with my favourite seaweed Chondrus crispus or Irish Moss. It is the historical source of the thickener carrageenan. Carrageenan can be found in a lot of products as E407"
For me it has also been interesting to see, during the last decades, the growing interest in seaweeds as food in Europe. Largely driven by sushi restaurants, and the interest for exotic food, which uses different types of seaweeds in their meals. This increased use has also increased the interest in aquaculture of algae and has made it slightly easier to get funding for algal research projects.
In my research, I study genomics, physiology and ecophysiology of red, green and brown seaweeds. I am trying to understand differences and similarities compared to terrestrial plants. In most areas of research our knowledge on algae are less important than what exist for terrestrial plants. This is a challenge because of the need to develop and adapt methods, but also an opportunity because many fundamental questions are still unanswered.
My role in the project is to highlight the potential of micro and macroalgae for producing food and raw material. I also think that there is a potential of using the diversity of algae and algal metabolism to improve crop plants, for instance Rubisco from red algae has been investigated for its higher efficiency and possible introduction into crop plants.
We are currently using most of the land available for agriculture to grow our food and it is difficult to increase the production by increasing the area. In contrast, if we grow seaweeds in the Ocean there is a very large potential surface that we can use for aquaculture. In addition, seaweed aquaculture typically uses no fertilizers and because nutrients are taken up during growth, the seaweed “fields” are actually cleaning up the seawater.
Another difference between seaweeds and terrestrial crops is the very limited strain selection that has been done for seaweeds that probably means that the potential of increased production through plant breeding is very high. The production of seaweed through aquaculture is presently a 17 billion USD per year industry yielding 32 million tons of algae, however, it is mainly present in Asia and only limited development is going on in Europe. Thus, the potential of algae as new crops and as an additional food source and a source of high value raw materials is important in Europe and globally.
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