Spanish researchers explore beneficial uses for invasive seaweed

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seaweed

Increasing reports of beaches covered in large amounts of seaweed are becoming a common occurrence in Spain. These algae not only annoy beachgoers but also cause ecological damage. Now, a group of researchers is looking into ways to turn this nuisance into something useful.

A groundbreaking project is underway, involving a multidisciplinary team of chemists, mathematicians, biologists, ecologists, and botanists from the universities of Alicante, Málaga, and Granada. They are investigating how the invasive seaweed, scientifically known as Rugulopteryx okamurae and commonly referred to as Asian seaweed, can be repurposed. This seaweed is rich in chemical compounds that could be valuable across various industries, including food, cosmetics, and water purification.

Valuable chemical compounds

Led by principal investigator Mari Carmen Garrigós from the University of Alicante, the team is developing sustainable and cost-effective methods to manage the increasing seaweed along Spain’s southern coast, particularly in Cádiz. Laboratory tests have revealed that this invasive species contains powerful antioxidants and antibacterial polyphenols. Additionally, the fatty acids in these algae have the ability to retain heat. Garrigós suggests that these properties could be harnessed to keep food cool. “By incorporating these chemicals into biodegradable food packaging,” she explains, “we could maintain the cold chain for refrigerated foods.” Furthermore, the team has discovered that the algae can filter toxic metals like arsenic and mercury from seawater.  Moreover, this indicates potential for water purification.

Ecological impact

The project is funded by the Spanish State Research Agency (AEI) and the Ministry of Science and Innovation (MICIN). It is part of a broader effort to manage seaweed waste along Spanish coastlines. Since appearing in southern Spain in 2015, the algae have spread even to the Canary Islands. These invasive algae cause significant damage to marine ecosystems, leading to biodiversity loss and harming protected areas like those within the Natura 2000 network. The seaweed also severely impacts the fishing industry by reducing catches, damaging equipment, and incurring high costs for local authorities to clear the algae from beaches.

Origins and spread

Ecologist César Bordehore from the University of Alicante explains that the seaweed arrived in ballast water from commercial ships originating from countries like Korea, Japan, China, Taiwan, and the Philippines. He points out that this seaweed grows rapidly and suffocates important species such as seagrass (Posidonia oceanica), which is detrimental to marine environments. This disruption also negatively affects tourism due to beach pollution. Bordehore emphasies the need for ongoing marine monitoring to address these issues promptly before they escalate and reach the coast.

Also read: Invasive algae discovered “for the first time” on the coast of Barcelona

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