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Cawthron Institute’s National Algae Research Centre Set To Unlock Algae Potential

Cawthron Institute is celebrating the official opening of its new National Algae Research Centre, which will enable the expansion of its algae research and support the establishment of an exciting new industry in New Zealand.

The first stage of the Centre was officially opened by Prime Minister Rt Hon Jacinda Ardern on 27 May 2021, just two years after $6m of funding was provided by the government’s Provincial Growth Fund. Cawthron also contributed $2m towards the Centre.

Cawthron Institute Chief Executive Volker Kuntzsch says the Centre will enable Cawthron researchers to build on their existing expertise to meet growing global demand for algae-based products and solutions.

“From the extraction of bioactive compounds from microalgae for high-value pharmaceutical products, through to ‘methane busting’ seaweed, there are enormous possibilities for a thriving New Zealand algae sector,” said Kuntzsch.

“Cawthron’s algae expertise, along with our strong history of being at the forefront of emerging opportunities for New Zealand, means we are well placed to act as the bridge from science to industry, connecting with commercial entities that are investigating valuable algae consumer products”.

Key areas of research focus at the National Algae Research Centre will include:

Cawthron has more than 30 years of expertise in algae research, from the microscopic level through to the impact of algae in our marine ecosystems. It is one of only a few organisations worldwide to specialise in extracting high-value bioactive compounds from algae. More recently, Cawthron has been investigating the economic, social and environmental value of seaweed to help inform Government and industry decision-making.

Based at Cawthron’s Aquaculture Park near Nelson, the first stage of the Centre at this site will predominantly focus on macroalgae (seaweed), which is poised to become the third pillar of the New Zealand aquaculture sector alongside shellfish and finfish.

“We know that globally seaweed represents almost a third of aquaculture production volume, with a value of US$14 billion. However, the New Zealand seaweed sector is still in its infancy, so we have this fantastic opportunity to use the National Algae Research Centre as a hub of seaweed innovation for New Zealand,” said Kuntzsch.

Cawthron Algae and Bioactives Group Manager Dr Johan Svenson said there was already some potentially game-changing research underway.

“We’ve been looking at how to grow native red seaweed Asparagopsis armata at scale which could dramatically reduce methane emissions when added to livestock feed, and we are also investigating the nutritional properties of another native red seaweed Karengo.”

“But if we’re going to help create a successful seaweed sector it’s clear that reliance on wild and beach harvest is not sustainable to meet market demand for potential products. Cawthron’s research has helped to revolutionise the mussel industry through the development of selective breeding and sustainable aquaculture farming methods, and our aim is to do the same with seaweed,” said Dr Svenson.

The second stage of the National Algae Research Centre will see a separate facility constructed as part of the new laboratories at the proposed Science and Technology precinct in Nelson to continue Cawthron’s specialist work in extracting high-value bioactive compounds from microalgae.

Kuntzsch said the government’s provincial growth funding has helped Cawthron to accelerate its work in the algae space at a much faster pace than it would otherwise be able to and is proud of Cawthron’s role in supporting the creation of jobs.

“Including three recently appointed algae technicians, as well as numerous planning and construction roles, the Centre has already contributed to more than 20 jobs in the region. That number is expected to climb to around 30 jobs in total once both stages of the Centre are fully operational.”

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