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Tiny Algae, Big Potential

Researchers in Japan see huge potential in a tiny type of alga. It's already being added to food to make it more nutritious. But now they're looking at other ways to use it, including in medicines and biofuel. NHK WORLD's Yuji Osawa has more.

The alga euglena, a single-celled organism measuring less than 0.1 millimeter, is thinner than a human hair.

But the plant, which typically forms a green scum on stagnant water, packs a lot of nutrients. It contains 59 different vitamins, minerals and amino acids.

Products made with euglena are popular with health-conscious consumers in Japan. And the alga is used in nutritional supplements exported to the US and China.

A Tokyo-based biotech venture firm named for the alga is the only company producing it for commercial purposes.

Last year, after 9 years of effort, the company's sales finally exceeded 25 million dollars.

"People said it's weird or that it doesn't seem delicious," said Euglena President Mitsuro Izumo. "Nobody said it is wonderful. I expected sales of the products would expand quickly, but it took so many years."

Izumo's eyes were opened to the problem of malnutrition, particularly among children, when he traveled to Bangladesh as an 18-year-old.

In his search for a highly nutritious food, he hit upon the idea of using algae.

But his early attempts to cultivate euglena met with limited success. He could grow small amounts in a lab, but when he tried doing so on a large scale the algae got eaten by other microorganisms.

"I kept telling myself that my next experiment would be successful," Izumo said. "I dreamed that if things went well, it could be used to feed all the malnourished children in Bangladesh."

After 5 years of looking for a solution, Izumo finally succeeded in developing a culture fluid that other microorganisms could not survive in.

Izumo's company now distributes cookies made with euglena to elementary schools in Bangladesh. Schools that don't serve lunch hand out the cookies to students 6 days a week instead.

"Children and parents are delighted and thankful," Izumo said. "Rations are now distributed to 2,500 children. But I want to deliver the cookies to more people."

Researchers are trying to broaden the alga's potential. They're developing new products, including medicine and biofuel.

Experiments are under way to power buses with a fuel that combines the organism with diesel oil. And researchers are using it to develop a new type of jet fuel. But it would cost two or three times more than conventional fuel.

"We need to study the micro alga more so that we'll be able to produce it in large quantities and at a lower cost," Izumo said.

There are still many hurdles to overcome before products like these become mainstream. But Izumo says he won't give up because he believes in the great potential of the tiny organism.

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