This Start-Up Believes Seaweed Can Change the World
By Karen Scofield Seal
Demand for plant-based food and nutrition is growing. According to recent retail sales data, grocery sales of plant-based foods in place of animal products grew 29% in the U.S. to $5 billion between 2017 and 2019.
Sustainably farmed seaweed could help meet this need, while also providing compostable, marine-safe packaging. UK-based biotech start-up Oceanium has developed innovative, "green and clean" biorefinery technology to make both these things possible.
With grant funding from Innovate UK and seed investment from Sky Ocean Ventures and Katapult Ocean (the latter two being ocean impact VCs), is focusing on scaling up their high-tech, innovative biorefinery and product development to find out more about the start-up's history, development and plans for the future. We spoke to Oceanium's Karen Scofield to find out more about the start-up's history, development and plans for the future.
How Oceanium's technology works. Oceanium
How Did Oceanium Come About?
I met my Co-Founder and our CTO, Dr Charlie Bavington, PhD in May 2018. My background is in partnership and business development, brand-building and marketing. I've worked with (RED), Comic Relief and also run my own successful e-commerce business. After completing a postgraduate certificate at the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainable Leadership, I conducted extensive research on what type of business I could start that would have the most impact and that's when I discovered seaweed. Ever since then, I have been passionate about sharing its environmental and societal benefits.
Charlie is a brilliant biochemist who has been developing and commercializing marine-based products for the past 20 years. He was the Founder of the successful biotech company, GlycoMar, and has extensive experience developing marine-based products for commercial use. He currently has five patents to his name and is about to file two more for Oceanium bio-packaging. I shared my vision of making packaging from seaweed with Charlie, who confirmed that this was possible but that there was also an opportunity to capitalize on all the food and nutritional ingredients in seaweed too. Charlie and I co-founded Oceanium in June 2018, and have been moving forward swiftly ever since.
How Is Oceanium Contributing to the Low-Carbon Economy?
Oceanium's impact mission is to enable the emerging sustainable seaweed farming industry by creating demand for farmed seaweed. Sustainable seaweed farming helps to mitigate climate change via carbon and nitrogen absorption. According to the World Bank, seaweed can absorb 47kg of carbon per wet tonne which equates to approximately one tonne of carbon per hectare annually.
Seaweed farming in Oban, Scotland. Oceanium
Of course, some of that carbon will go back into the system. So we are conducting life-cycle analysis on our process and products so we may improve efficiencies but also to measure and report our impact as we grow and go to market. We are liaising with organizations like Seaweed for Europe and the UN Global Compact Seaweed Manifesto to help quantify this carbon absorption and to ensure this exciting new industry grows in a sustainable and managed fashion.
Seaweed farms protect the seabed from commercial fishing and other harmful practices and create a marine sanctuary for sea life. Seaweed farming also has other immensely positive environmental impacts, as it does not require cleared land, freshwater, insecticide or fertilizer. Our seaweed-based materials can replace resource-intensive food and feedstocks which often contribute to deforestation. In addition, seaweed farms encourage responsible coastal management and create marine protected areas for sealife.
What About the Economic and Societal Impact of Your Business?
Seaweed as a food source will help ensure food security. It's incredibly nutritious and full of vitamins, minerals and protein-essential micronutrients, particularly antioxidants.
The world will require 50–70% more food by 2050 and with increasing drought conditions and decreasing soil quality, seaweed provides a sustainable solution to this challenge.
Seaweed can help close the "protein gap" in the more immediate term: Europe currently imports 70% of its protein but Oceanium plans to process and sell its outputs on a regional basis to reduce transport miles of our products. We aim to contribute towards economic development and job creation in coastal communities by supporting small-scale farmers when purchasing seaweed, promoting best practice farming techniques and helping enable the nascent sustainable seaweed farming industry in the UK, EU and in the developing world.
A pilot trial of Oceanium's proprietary biorefinery process. Oceanium
What Has Been the Impact of COVID-19 on Oceanium?
Oceanium has continued to move forward despite the pandemic. At a start-up there is always plenty to do and we've been working on developing relationships across the value chain, researching and analyzing new opportunities, and conducting research. Interestingly, our nutraceutical product, Fucoidan, has proven to be an effective COVID-19 antiviral in vitro and we are watching this research closely.
What's Next on the Horizon?
Oceanium continues to progress with research and development for our food ingredients (protein and fiber), nutraceuticals (Fucoidan, Beta glucan) and circular life-cycle bio packaging materials (film and board).
We have also begun work on two new Innovate UK grants. The first is focused on further development of the bio-packaging materials; the second looks at maximizing efficiencies across all aspects of the production process, from the seaweed farm to final product development.
Oceanium research associate Andre Rastica at work. Oceanium
We are scaling our innovative biorefinery process – we processed approximately 8 tonnes of wet seaweed in December and have plans for 45 tonnes in 2021.
Meanwhile, we are continuing to build relationships with seaweed farmers in the UK, EU and North America. We are also fundraising for further R&D, patent applications and undergoing regulatory processes as we prepare to launch products in 2021. We are well on our way to "Kelp the World"!
What Resources or Assistance Do You Need to Achieve Your Ambitions That You Currently Don't Have? Is There Any Assistance That the Uplink Community Could Offer?
Definitely. Our nutraceutical products will go to market next year and we are looking for commercial or business development experts in the nutrition and cosmetics space. Importantly, we are also fundraising so always keen to connect with funders and investors!
Reposted with permission from World Economic Forum.
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By Ana Maldonado-Contreras
- Your gut is home to trillions of bacteria that are vital for keeping you healthy.
- Some of these microbes help to regulate the immune system.
- New research, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, shows the presence of certain bacteria in the gut may reveal which people are more vulnerable to a more severe case of COVID-19.
You may not know it, but you have an army of microbes living inside of you that are essential for fighting off threats, including the virus that causes COVID-19.
How Do Resident Bacteria Keep You Healthy?<p>Our immune defense is part of a complex biological response against harmful pathogens, such as viruses or bacteria. However, because our bodies are inhabited by trillions of mostly beneficial bacteria, virus and fungi, activation of our immune response is tightly regulated to distinguish between harmful and helpful microbes.</p><p>Our bacteria are spectacular companions diligently helping prime our immune system defenses to combat infections. A seminal study found that mice treated with antibiotics that eliminate bacteria in the gut exhibited an impaired immune response. These animals had low counts of virus-fighting white blood cells, weak antibody responses and poor production of a protein that is vital for <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1019378108" target="_blank">combating viral infection and modulating the immune response</a>.</p><p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0184976" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In another study</a>, mice were fed <em>Lactobacillus</em> bacteria, commonly used as probiotic in fermented food. These microbes reduced the severity of influenza infection. The <em>Lactobacillus</em>-treated mice did not lose weight and had only mild lung damage compared with untreated mice. Similarly, others have found that treatment of mice with <em>Lactobacillus</em> protects against different <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/srep04638" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">subtypes of</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-17487-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">influenza</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1008072" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">virus</a> and human respiratory syncytial virus – the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-39602-7" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">major cause of viral bronchiolitis and pneumonia in children</a>.</p>
Chronic Disease and Microbes<p>Patients with chronic illnesses including Type 2 diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease exhibit a hyperactive immune system that fails to recognize a harmless stimulus and is linked to an altered gut microbiome.</p><p>In these chronic diseases, the gut microbiome lacks bacteria that activate <a href="https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1198469" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">immune cells</a> that block the response against harmless bacteria in our guts. Such alteration of the gut microbiome is also observed in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1002601107" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">babies delivered by cesarean section</a>, individuals consuming a poor <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nature12820" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">diet</a> and the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nature11053" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elderly</a>.</p><p>In the U.S., 117 million individuals – about half the adult population – <a href="https://health.gov/our-work/food-nutrition/2015-2020-dietary-guidelines/guidelines/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">suffer from Type 2 diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease or a combination of them</a>. That suggests that half of American adults carry a faulty microbiome army.</p><p>Research in my laboratory focuses on identifying gut bacteria that are critical for creating a balanced immune system, which fights life-threatening bacterial and viral infections, while tolerating the beneficial bacteria in and on us.</p><p>Given that diet affects the diversity of bacteria in the gut, <a href="https://www.umassmed.edu/nutrition/melody-trial-info/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">my lab studies show how diet can be used</a> as a therapy for chronic diseases. Using different foods, people can shift their gut microbiome to one that boosts a healthy immune response.</p><p>A fraction of patients infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 disease, develop severe complications that require hospitalization in intensive care units. What do many of those patients have in common? <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6912e2.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Old age</a> and chronic diet-related diseases like obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.</p><p><a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/j.jada.2008.12.019" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Black and Latinx people are disproportionately affected by obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease</a>, all of which are linked to poor nutrition. Thus, it is not a coincidence that <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6933e1.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">these groups have suffered more deaths from COVID-19</a> compared with whites. This is the case not only in the U.S. but also <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/blacks-in-britain-are-four-times-as-likely-to-die-of-coronavirus-as-whites-data-show/2020/05/07/2dc76710-9067-11ea-9322-a29e75effc93_story.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">in Britain</a>.</p>
Discovering Microbes That Predict COVID-19 Severity<p>The COVID-19 pandemic has inspired me to shift my research and explore the role of the gut microbiome in the overly aggressive immune response against SARS-CoV-2 infection.</p><p>My colleagues and I have hypothesized that critically ill SARS-CoV-2 patients with conditions like obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease exhibit an altered gut microbiome that aggravates <a href="https://theconversation.com/exercise-may-help-reduce-risk-of-deadly-covid-19-complication-ards-136922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">acute respiratory distress syndrome</a>.</p><p>Acute respiratory distress syndrome, a life-threatening lung injury, in SARS-CoV-2 patients is thought to develop from a <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/j.cytogfr.2020.05.003" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">fatal overreaction of the immune response</a> called a <a href="https://theconversation.com/blocking-the-deadly-cytokine-storm-is-a-vital-weapon-for-treating-covid-19-137690" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cytokine storm</a> <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/S2213-2600(20)30216-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">that causes an uncontrolled flood</a> <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/S2213-2600(20)30216-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">of immune cells into the lungs</a>. In these patients, their own uncontrolled inflammatory immune response, rather than the virus itself, causes the <a href="http://doi.org/10.1007/s00134-020-05991-x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">severe lung injury and multiorgan failures</a> that lead to death.</p><p>Several studies <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.trsl.2020.08.004" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">described in one recent review</a> have identified an altered gut microbiome in patients with COVID-19. However, identification of specific bacteria within the microbiome that could predict COVID-19 severity is lacking.</p><p>To address this question, my colleagues and I recruited COVID-19 hospitalized patients with severe and moderate symptoms. We collected stool and saliva samples to determine whether bacteria within the gut and oral microbiome could predict COVID-19 severity. The identification of microbiome markers that can predict the clinical outcomes of COVID-19 disease is key to help prioritize patients needing urgent treatment.</p><p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1101/2021.01.05.20249061" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">We demonstrated</a>, in a paper which has not yet been peer reviewed, that the composition of the gut microbiome is the strongest predictor of COVID-19 severity compared to patient's clinical characteristics commonly used to do so. Specifically, we identified that the presence of a bacterium in the stool – called <em>Enterococcus faecalis</em>– was a robust predictor of COVID-19 severity. Not surprisingly, <em>Enterococcus faecalis</em> has been associated with <a href="https://doi.org/10.1053/j.gastro.2011.05.035" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">chronic</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/S0002-9440(10)61172-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">inflammation</a>.</p><p><em>Enterococcus faecalis</em> collected from feces can be grown outside of the body in clinical laboratories. Thus, an <em>E. faecalis</em> test might be a cost-effective, rapid and relatively easy way to identify patients who are likely to require more supportive care and therapeutic interventions to improve their chances of survival.</p><p>But it is not yet clear from our research what is the contribution of the altered microbiome in the immune response to SARS-CoV-2 infection. A recent study has shown that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.12.11.416180" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">SARS-CoV-2 infection triggers an imbalance in immune cells</a> called <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/imr.12170" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">T regulatory cells that are critical to immune balance</a>.</p><p>Bacteria from the gut microbiome are responsible for the <a href="https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.30916.001" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">proper activation</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1198469" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">of those T-regulatory</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nri.2016.36" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cells</a>. Thus, researchers like me need to take repeated patient stool, saliva and blood samples over a longer time frame to learn how the altered microbiome observed in COVID-19 patients can modulate COVID-19 disease severity, perhaps by altering the development of the T-regulatory cells.</p><p>As a Latina scientist investigating interactions between diet, microbiome and immunity, I must stress the importance of better policies to improve access to healthy foods, which lead to a healthier microbiome. It is also important to design culturally sensitive dietary interventions for Black and Latinx communities. While a good-quality diet might not prevent SARS-CoV-2 infection, it can treat the underlying conditions related to its severity.</p><p><em><a href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/ana-maldonado-contreras-1152969" target="_blank">Ana Maldonado-Contreras</a> is an assistant professor of Microbiology and Physiological Systems at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.</em></p><p><em>Disclosure statement: Ana Maldonado-Contreras receives funding from The Helmsley Charitable Trust and her work has been supported by the American Gastroenterological Association. She received The Charles A. King Trust Postdoctoral Research Fellowship. She is also member of the Diversity Committee of the American Gastroenterological Association.</em></p><p><em style="">Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/a-healthy-microbiome-builds-a-strong-immune-system-that-could-help-defeat-covid-19-145668" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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