MENDELU Scientists Want To Use Microalgae To Produce Energy, Purify Water, and Supplement Space Diets

Scientists from MENDELU are investigating the multiple uses of microalgae. Photo credit: MENDELU.

Brno, Jan 13 (BD) – The effects of cosmic radiation and UV radiation on the survival and growth of microalgae are being investigated by scientists from the Faculty of Agronomy at Mendel University (AF MENDEL). Last year, the experts sent a probe into the stratosphere carrying several dozen samples of these microorganisms. The first results now show that being in space has had a long-term effect on the algae. In the future, scientists want to use the new findings to identify resistant species that astronauts could use, for example, to produce biofuel or purify water.

“The great thing about microalgae is that they have multiple uses. For example, people are familiar with chlorella, which is used as a dietary supplement and contains proteins, vitamins, antioxidants, B12, and other beneficial things. But in space there are many more possibilities,” said Katarína Molnárová from the Space Agri Technologies Laboratory at AF MENDEL.

Among the benefits of algae are that they produce oxygen, and some can also be the basis for biofuel production or aid in water purification. “I would also like to work on the degradation of toxic substances using microalgae,” explained Molnárová. “For example, the soil on Mars contains large amounts of perchlorates, which are toxic salts that cause thyroid disorders. When grown on such soil, the salts enter the plant’s body, and for astronauts to consume these crops would pose a significant health risk.” However, with the help of microalgae, it would theoretically be possible to break down the perchlorates, according to the scientist. “Of course, we must not forget about the use of microalgae as classic food supplements,” she added.

In an experimental flight last autumn, scientists sent around 70 samples of different microalgae into the stratosphere. The probe remained at an altitude of 35 kilometres for about an hour. The microalgae were affected by cosmic radiation and UV radiation, but also by temperature changes. “About 5% of the samples did not survive the journey into space, which we consider a good result,” the scientist said.

In the lab, the scientists subsequently dissected some of the surviving microalgae and froze some for further analysis. After two weeks of cultivation, they focused on spectral analysis. “We were surprised that even after the two weeks, there was still increased antioxidant activity, meaning that the samples were still recovering. So even such a short exposure to space conditions was able to mark the microalgae for several generations,” said Molnárová. Currently, the experts plan to focus on molecular studies and RNA isolation.

At the same time, the scientists are already planning further research to build on the new findings. “There are basically two ways. These investigations would then have real, practical applications not only in space,” Molnárová said. The first option is to create a kind of catalogue of microalgae that would summarise how different species respond to space conditions. “We would describe that, for example, this species produces a lot of lipids in space, so we will use it to produce biofuel. Another produces a powerful antioxidant, so it would be a good addition to the astronauts’ diet,” the scientist added.

The second pathway is based on the description of gene expression. In the future, experts would like to use genetic engineering to breed the perfect space algae. “If we know what a particular gene is responsible for, we can modify it so that the space algae, for example, produces even more lipids, antioxidants, and so on,” Molnárová said.

Scientists would also like to take part in more stratospheric balloon flights and longer space flights with samples in orbit.

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