Towards Sustainable Society: Venkat Rao Konasani’s Research in Seaweeds and its Utility  

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ATHENA Ethical MEDIA

Sweden is a country of natural resources ranging from forests to mining to an abundance of water for generating eco-friendly energy (hydropower). The natural resources enabled Sweden not only to emerge as a country of industries but also helped it to firmly establish itself in the world as a country of engineering companies and as a leader in the paper industry. Research in natural resources continues to grow with the encouragement from the government and universities like Chalmers in Gothenburg giving due importance.

SWEDISH COASTLINE & SEAWEEDS

Sweden, 55th largest country in the world and fifth largest in Europe but the largest in northern Europe, has 3,218 km of coastline- Baltic Sea and Gulf (Bay, Sea) of Bothnia. Its coastline also inspired it to be a seafaring nation in medieval times, and as a maritime superpower in Europe (Vasa ship, the Titanic of the times, is a testimony to it albeit it sank like the Titanic).

Inland and coastal waters of Sweden continue to inspire Swedes to undertake water-related free-time activities ranging from angling, boating, sailing, swimming and to fishing as a livelihood activity. With the climate-change issue forcing the countries to look for sustainable ways to feed the societies, research is gaining momentum to explore the environmental-friendly alternatives unlike putting the land to intensive farming or by importing food from distant lands.

Swedish coastline is rich in seaweeds. Seaweeds are edible, and a delicacy in Oriental cuisine. Littoral areas of the Swedish coast have uncontaminated and unpolluted seaweeds unlike in China. However, how to use them?

RESEARCH IN SEAWEED UTILISATION: NOVEL ENZYME

Industrial Biotechnology Division of Department of Biology and Biological Engineering, the Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg is leading pioneering research in seaweeds with projects focusing on seaweed preservation and biorefinery.

Venkat Rao Konasani is a postdoctoral researcher with Eva Albers, a researcher at the department focusing on research in sustainable products or renewable resources such as biomass of terrestrial and aquatic plants (seaweeds). He says seaweeds are rich in nutrients and dietary fibre and are edible (green seaweed Ulva is also known as sea lettuce). Green seaweed biomass is also rich in rare sugars which are usable as flavouring agents in food and as anti-coagulants in medicine. However, there is a lack of biotechnology tools to extract these nutrients and fine-chemicals. This scarcity is now overcome by the new biocatalyst (novel ulvan-lyase enzyme) discovered in this research study by Konasani and coworkers. This novel enzyme facilitates the extraction of sugars and proteins from the seaweed. This can be applied to industries or on an industrial scale. The research work is published in the research journal “Nature – Scientific Reports” titled ‘A novel ulvan lyase family (enzyme) with broad-spectrum activity from the ulvan utilisation loci of Formosa agariphilia KMM 3901’, and the co-authors are Chunsheng Jin, Niclas G. Karlsson & Eva Albers. Chunsheng Jin and Niclas G. Karlsson are affiliated to Gothenburg University.

Konasani’s research throws the possibility of applicability of these enzymes in seaweed bio-refinery applications ranging from extraction of fine chemicals to biofuel production to sustainable food products. Moreover, this current study provides the first clue on the presence of similar biocatalysts in the two major kinds of resident bacteria (Bacteroidetes and Firmicutes) in our gastrointestinal tract. This finding is very significant as this brings more knowledge on the status of seaweed dietary fibre and its conversion to small chain fatty acids that are important for the excellent health of our gut.

Research studies like this would bring the new frontiers and help in the realisation of the blue contribution to the Swedish economy, and place Sweden on the forefront in marine seaweed biorefinery.