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Harvesting Arctic algae

Microorganisms living in the depths of the oceans under conditions unbearable for humans utilize hot springs to produce their energy and substances. Some bacteria and algae feel right at home in the boiling waters of a geyser and others in acid ponds or salt waters. Still others populate glaciers and snow fields.

For many years, researchers have been travelling to the most remote corners of the earth in search of unknown extremophilic life forms. Their interest extends beyond the characterization of the organisms and their exotic metabolic processes as J'?rg Degen of the Fraunhofer Institute for Interfacial Engineering and Biotechnology IGB explains: "In biotechnology, single-cell extremophiles show particular advantages in the production of a variety of substances. Their more ordinary colleagues can hardly compete because they find the extreme conditions in a bioreactor anything but pleasant." This translates into less effort to sterilize the equipment and less risk that a batch will need to be rejected. This biologist should know what he is talking about. After all, he works for the Stuttgart-based firm SUBITEC GmbH, a Fraunhofer spin-off which in the near future plans to produce a red food coloring from algae in kilogram quantities. There is a large market for astaxanthin, which up to now has been produced either synthetically or using genetically altered bacteria. In the salmon-farming industry alone, this coloring agent swallows up more than ten percent of the total production costs.

Extremophiles have become interesting in other fields too. "Even psychrophiles - microorganisms which thrive and reproduce at temperatures just above freezing point - are potential candidates for the production of as yet unknown enzymes," as Thomas Leya of the Fraunhofer Institute for Biomedical Engineering IBMT points out. "We're confident that some of these biocatalysts will be used to advantage not only in temperature-sensitive steps such as in milk processing. That is why our team has specialized in algae which we find in arctic snow fields."

But why don't the scientists simply search alpine glaciers which likewise can be covered with pink snow from certain algae? In Spitsbergen where they set out for at the end of last month, the snow fields are still virgin-clean and hardly investigated. Like the ones before, this expedition will return to Berlin with new types of algae. At the Center for Biophysics and Bioinformatics at the Humboldt University, the living organisms will be researched and cultivated - as a future resource for pharmaceutical and food processing industries.

Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft. September 2002.

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