Green algae found in UAE could produce alternative to palm oil

The trade in palm oil and plantations in Asia have been criticised by environmental groups for clearing of millions of hectares of forest land

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Researchers have discovered that a green algae found in the UAE could be used to produce an alternative to palm oil, which is environmentally destructive in its cultivation.

Chloroidium algae is one of the most prevalent in the region and researchers from New York University Abu Dhabi studied the strain which can be found in coastal beaches, mangroves and desert oases.

These microalgae have a diverse set of genes and proteins that help it thrive in freshwater and saltwater and enable it to consume over 40 different varieties of carbon sources to produce energy.

The microalgae also accumulate oily molecules with a similar composition to palm oil leading researchers to believe it could be used to make an oil that will provide an alternative to the environmentally destructive palm oil trade.

"We believe this alga may provide an environmentally sound alternative to the cultivation of palm oil once it is further developed, and can be of both commercial and environmental benefit to pursue with extensive investigations," said Kourosh Salehi-Ashtiani, associate professor of biology at NYUAD.
The trade in palm oil and its cultivation has devastated rain forests in Asia. While palm oil is widely used in everything from soap to margarine, plantations have been criticised by environmental and social activist groups for clearing of millions of hectares of forest land.

Smoke rises from the remnants of the Tripa swamp forest in Aceh, Sumatra. The forest is being cleared to make way for palm oil plantations. The original forest is the habitat of the Sumatran orangutan, but it is  thought that there are just 200 of the apes left in Tripa, where once there were about 2,000. They have been killed or displaced by the spread of palm oil plantations. In 1990 there were an estimated 60,000 hectares of swamp forest: now just 10,000 hectares are left. *** Local Caption ***  Orangutan-15.jpg
Smoke rises from the remnants of the Tripa swamp forest in Aceh, Sumatra. The forest is being cleared to make way for palm oil plantations. Photo: Gethin Chamberlain

“Being a high-value oil with a global production of up to 60 million metric tons per year, palm oil cultivation has previously been associated with deforestation and the devastation of rainforests throughout Asia, raising significant environmental concerns as many European markets are now banning the use of oil palm in their products,” Mr Salehi-Ashtiani said.

He said chloroidium alga studied in the UAE had the ability to adapt to climate change and was “able to grow in fresh water as well as waters with twice the salinity of seawater.”

The study, published in research journal eLife, provides insight into how its adaptations make chloroidium an ideal candidate for other applications in the biotechnology industry.

“Among these unique attributes are an ability to consume a broad range of carbon sources,” said David Nelson, NYUAD research scientist and lead author of the study.

“The high concentration of palmitic acid promotes a similar composition of chloroidium oil to that of palm oil.”

Green microalgae, also known as single-celled green algae, play an important role in the world’s ecosystems because they can harness energy from sunlight to produce carbon-rich compounds.

These microalgae have been harnessed to make food, fuel and medicines.

Like plants that live in the desert, the algae evolved specific traits that allow it to live in hot and dry regions.

The NYUAD researchers worked with scientists from the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Plant Physiology, Germany, Birzeit University, Palestine and New York University, United States.