Interview | Dr Anna Fricke

About the challenges of the project and why we should eat macro algae

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Dr Anna Fricke is a scientist at the Leibniz-Institut of Vegetable and Ornamental crops (IGZ) in the programme area "Plant Quality and Food Security". She received her PhD degree from the University of Bremen and the Leibniz-Centre for Tropical Marine Research (ZMT). From Argentina to Spitzbergen, she has worked in many different countries where she conducted research on marine ecosystems. Her main interests have been the study of biodiversity, physioecology and the use of benthic algae. Within food4future, Dr Fricke is responsible for the cultivation and analysis of macro algae in closed systems for food production for the project "Macro Algae and Halophytes".

We talked to Dr. Fricke about her project, why we should eat algae and what a marine biologist is doing so far away from the sea in Brandenburg.

Why algae - what made you decide to specialise in algae?

I think it was mainly because of the element water. As a child, I always wanted to do something with water and I knew quite early on that I wanted to go into marine biology. However, at the beginning of my studies, I was mainly interested in marine mammals. Istarted specializing in algae after working in a great working group at the Alfred Wegener Institute. I was inspired by the people and the environment and realized: this fits.         

Palmaria palmata (red dulse) is an edible red alga, which has been described to taste like bacon. The edible green alga Ulva lactuca, also called sea lettuce, is found in the North Sea and is also edible. The algae were obtained from Meeresalgenland UG.
Photo: J. Vogt, IGZ

What fascinates you most about marine macro algae? What potential do you see in macro algae production?

Especially the diversity of algae fascinates me. I have studied algae from very different perspectives: from ecology to physiology, and now, with food4future, also with respect to human nutrition – through both, basic and applied research. Algae are extremely old organisms. They have had an incredible amount of time to adapt, which has allowed them to develop an extremely wide variety of forms and responses, which are also very diverse due to their interaction with other organisms. Because of their diversity, algae have a high potential. They have been cultivated and used for centuries, particularly in Asia. New extraction technologies also open up new possibilities for the use of macro algae. Algae are not only being consumed as a whole and offer a good protein source, they also contain various nutritionally interesting macro and micronutrients, such as secondary plant metabolites, fatty acids and oils, which are interesting for a wide variety of applications. Carotenoids that are being used as (food) colorings and supplements, phlorotannins as UV protection in sunscreen, fucoidans which have anti-inflammatory effects, the well-known agar-agar as a vegan alternative to gelatine, or unsaturated fatty acids such as omega-3 making an essential contribution to a healthy diet,… They can all be made from algae! And there is still a lot to come.

Macro algae in culture in the laboratories of the Leibniz Institute of Vegetable and Ornamental Crops (IGZ)
Photo: J. Vogt, IGZ

Up to now algae have mainly been produced directly in the sea, food4future aims to develop closed cultivation systems - which advantages do they offer?

So fare, offshore cultivation has been the method of choice for biomass production of marine macro algae. The ocean offers plenty of space and sufficient water. Species of the genera​​​​​ Undaria1 or Laminaria2 in particular require a lot of space.
Compared to cultivating in natural habitats, the advantage of closed systems is that you can control the environment. On the one hand, you can prevent the intake of environmental pollutants such as heavy metals by controlling the water quality. On the other hand, it is possible to specifically enrich nutrients within the algae by adjusting various cultivation parameters - for example light.
In a closed system, we also have control over what grows in co-culture. This way, for example, toxic algal blooms can be prevented, and a consumer-safe product can be guaranteed. There are already some approaches to artificial systems, but there is still a lot of work to be done.

Enlarged view (microscope) of the red alga Ceramium in various developmental stages.
Photos: A. Fricke, IGZ

The aim of the project is to implement the artificial cultivation systems for food production in urban areas. Why does it make sense to produce macro algae in German cities such as Berlin or Munich that  do not have direct access to the sea?

In food4future, solutions for future food production are developed on the basis ​​​​​of two extreme scenarios. In one of the scenarios, "No Land", we assume that traditional agricultural production is no longer possible or only possible to a very limited extent due to climate change. Droughts lead to salinisation of soils and drinking water resources become scarce. We therefore need alternatives. Since we also assume that urbanisation will continue to increase – in Germany more people already live in cities compared to rural areas – we want to keep transport and supply chains short by means of land-independent production, close to the city.
Of course, it is an obvious option to supply marine macro algae with seawater. This would make particular sense for coastal locations. However, there are also inland sources of salt water: natural inland salt springs, but also treated and purified industrial water with an increased salt content is imaginable so that long transport routes for the water are eliminated.

Sea lettuce (Ulva lactuca) in culture
Foto: A. Fricke, IGZ

How do you approach cultivating marine macro algae in closed systems?

We start with the selection of species, which is not trivial. Not all species of macro algae are suitable for every environment. We also have to take into account that the resources are freely and easily available – after all, in the long-term we want macro algae to be used in food production. So far, many species have been licensed or are being produced abroad. And this is where we run into problems with the Biodiversity Directive, the Nagoya Protocol3, which is designed to prevent the exploitation of other countries' biodiversity. So we mainly focus on native species such as Ulva lactuca, commonly known as sea lettuce, which is found in the North Sea.
After selection, the field material must be cultivated in the laboratory and cleaned of the flora and fauna attached to it. The algae are made to sporulate so that a unialgal culture can be grown from a single cell. If you have bad luck, the algae will germinate, but will not grow further under laboratory conditions. In nature, algae grow together with other organisms and microorganisms. As some bacteria are even necessary for the morphogenesis, i.e. form of the algae, algae cultures cannot simply be sterilized.
In the project, we now have various types of algae in unialgal culture, and "clean" enough that we can continue working with them. We are now testing whether they are suitable for cultivation in closed systems and in co-culture – in addition to already known species, we have also selected high-risk species that have not yet been investigated in artificial systems. We are now looking at metabolites and how the algae's composition changes under different conditions – e.g. through irradiation with UV light – and how we can optimize that composition for human nutrition.
We then analyse this by means of a modern analytical platform. In our experiments, we investigate what kind of triggers lead to an accumulation of certain metabolites. We focus on pigments, proteins, fatty acids as well as other metabolites. So far, algae material from the field has been examined for its chemical composition. Not all metabolites can always be reconstructed under artifical conditions, since not all relevant biological influences that the algae experience in the course of their life cycle up to the point of sampling can be determined. We therefore now systematically investigate this under defined conditions.
And then we face the challenge of bringing the selected macro algae into co-culture with the other food4future organisms - halophytes (IGZ), medusae (ZMT) and crickets (ATB). Here, it is important to find a compromise regarding their growth parameters. Which salt concentrations can be tolerated, which lighting conditions? In regard to stability, co-cultures have an advantage over monocultures, and are more future-oriented. In natural ecosystems there is a fine balance between species. The difficulty for artificial systems is to choose the right partners for certain conditions, so that they do not compete for resources but benefit from each other. At IGZ, we have already started with algae and halophytes, but a lot still need to be tested. Ultimately, we want to establish a sustainable system that makes sense in terms of energy and that optimally uses the resources water and nutrients.

Ulva and Palmaria in culture.
Photo: J. Vogt, IGZ

Before food4future, you were working at the ZMT in Bremen, and before that you mainly worked close to the coast. What is it like, as a marine biologist and expert on marine macro algae, to work in an institute for vegetable and ornamental crops in Brandenburg?

That is perhaps the most fascinating thing about the past few months. I've been to many places in the world, but this combination is unique. It is a challenge that I was very happy to accept – and so far I have not regretted this decision! I feel a bit stranded being so far away from the ocean. But on the other hand, I now have so much more time to directly work with algae, which I haven't had in a long time. At the moment, I am practically in close contact with them all the time. I never would have thought that being this far away from the sea, I would be able to work so intensively on a topic that means so much to me. In my past research, I was always confronted with a limit at some point. Now, if I get stuck with my expertise, I have the opportunity to exchange ideas and information with my colleagues, who have a background in completely different areas of research, for example food chemistry. It helps me to make connections, which enables me to learn so much more, to go beyond my limits and develop as a scientist.

Dr. Fricke in Patagonia with Mycrocystis, the largest species of brown algae.
Photo: A. Fricke, Private.

Your project aims to  cultivate macro algae for food production. Why should we eat seaweed? And do you think eating algae will soon become normal, too?

Algae are rich in protein, unsaturated fatty acids and various secondary metabolites, which means that their consumption enables a healthier diet. Also, their sustainable production is an argument to consume algae. Ultimately, it has to taste good, and I think algae can help diversify our diet. They are a versatile spice and can be processed in just as many ways: boiled, deep-fried, baked, dried, pickled and, if you like, even raw.
Algae and their ingredients have been in our daily lives for a long time – they can be found in many products: in food, cosmetics and pharmacological preparations. However, they cannot always be recognized from the packaging descriptions as such as they used to have a rather negative connotation.

Thank you for the interview, Dr. Fricke.


We took the opportunity to cook a popular street food recipe with algae from Urugay, Buñuelos de Algas, together with Dr Fricke. You can download the recipe here (German).

(Editor: J. Vogt, IGZ, Translation: I. Haesaert, IGZ)

1 Brown algae, to which Undaria pinnatifida, also called wakame, belongs (among others).

2 Brown algae genus whose species form large forests of seaweed, e.g. Macrocystis (giant seaweed). The alga is economically important for the production of alginates, which are used as thickening and gelling agents.

3 The Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit Sharing (UN Convention on Biological Diversity, 2010) provides the legal framework for access to genetic resources and equitable sharing of benefits between countries of origin of genetic resources and countries using them. The objective is to prevent biopiracy.