September 15, 2012
Astaxanthin is a powerful carotenoid antioxidant that is in demand as a nutritional supplement. It has been described a 뱒upernutrient?and 뱓he new fish oil? It is produced by the microalgae Haematoccous pluvialis when stressed by sun and desiccation. Astaxanthin can be extracted from the dried algae using supercritical CO2.
Tony Dowd has devised a process for growing a NZ strain of H. pluvialis isolated for him by the Cawthron Institute. After a lot of research and trial work, commercial production on a small scale started last year. Extraction is carried out by another Nelson company and astaxanthin in capsules is now being sold in NZ and overseas markets. Prospects are very good and Tony is looking at increasing capacity.
Astaxanthin is a carotenoid ?a class of compound that gives foods high colour eg. beetroot, capsicum, carrots, etc. These pigments carry out a variety of important biological functions, are critical to photosynthesis, and protect plants and organisms from damage by light and oxygen. Many animals including humans consume carotenoids to provide them with antioxidants and a source of vitamin A.
The best known carotenoids are lycopene (the red in tomatoes), beta-carotene (the orange in carrots) and zeaxanthin, which is found in peppers, kiwifruit, grapes and oranges. Astaxanthin is a very powerful antioxidant and is unique among the many known carotenoids in that it is the only one found so far that can cross the blood-brain barrier. Thus it has great protective potential and is in increasing demand as a nutritional supplement.
Astaxanthin occurs commonly in marine and aquatic animals, especially salmon, giving it its characteristic pink colour. Salmon cannot synthesize astaxanthin and must obtain it from a diet that includes zooplankton and krill. These organisms feed on microalgae that are the original producers of the pigment.
The common algae Haematoccous pluvialis is a source of astaxanthin used commercially.
Tony Dowd is a Kiwi with a BSc in biochemistry and an MBA. His career credentials include sales, marketing and new venture management with several companies including NZ Post and Carter Holt Harvey. He has spent time in the UK where he worked in company investments and finance. While doing that he became interested in biodiesel production from tallow in New Zealand and put together a business plan. He was about to embark on it when the price of tallow suddenly went up fourfold so he spent some time looking for alternative sources of oil for biodiesel and one of the options was algae.
밒 did the maths and it became very clear that it wasn뭪 economic, so I looked at other options and talked with staff at Cawthron Institute who suggested that I should look at the algae that produce astaxanthin, which was known to be valuable and that a local company was processing for an overseas client,?says Tony.
밫he numbers on it looked very promising if we could sell a kilogram of algae for $100 instead of about 20 cents, which was what we could get for it as biofuel. So I invested a bit of money doing some research with Cawthron, and we isolated a New Zealand strain of the algae and did some basic work on growing methods to see how effective it was at producing astaxanthin, and that was all positive.?/P>
Tony raised the necessary capital in the UK and got started. With exclusive rights to the technology from Cawthron for use with the strain and the NZ strain of the algae, he built a prototype facility in an old Nelson warehouse in May 2009.
밯e ran two different prototype plants until we had it nailed, found a better warehouse and some coolstores on the Wakatu Estate in March 2010, and built a new prototype and tried to make it work. Since then it has been remodelled twice and we finally got it working in October 2011,?he says.
밫his algae is slow growing and has multiple phases in its life cycle and so is difficult to handle. We believe it is an unique strain of H. pluvialis but there are some 80 strains isolated around the world. Only genome work will tell.?/P>
The organism is unique to New Zealand and has evolved under the prevailing high UV conditions and therefore is likely to produce more astaxanthin than other strains. Its natural life cycle involves shallow water that evaporates in summer. Says Tony 밒f you own a bird bath that dries out you get a red powder in the bottom ?that is probably this organism. In spring and summer birds bathe in the water and provide some nitrate and phosphate in the bath, the algae grow and then the nitrate runs out, summer comes and water evaporates, light gets more intense and so the algae will try to protect its DNA by forming a cyst. It accumulates up to 4% of its body weight as astaxanthin and it can stay like that for 20 to 30 years.
It really protects itself from environmental damage using this internal sunscreen. If we humans take astaxanthin it does gives us some sun protection. I am of Celtic extraction and follicly challenged on top but I find I find taking astaxanthin does protect me from sunburn.?/P>
In Tony뭩 process, astaxanthin is produced in three steps. Pure H. pluvialis cultures are used to inoculate the cultures that go into the 밽reen phase?and are run 24/7. Effluent culture is collected from them and stored in tanks.
밇ach day the stored culture is transferred to the 뱑ed phase?where we are trying to emulate the bird bath. We don뭪 take the water away but we starve the algae of nutrients and we hit them with modified light and other factors to stress them, and they start to turn red,?says Tony.
밃t the moment we use fluoro lights but we think we can double our production and save power by converting to LEDs, so we are doing some research on this supported by the Ministry of Science & Innovation.
Once the product is red, we empty it out of the bags, smash the cells using pressures of 800 to 1000 bar, and then dry the algae and use supercritical CO2 to extract the astaxanthin. The drying and extraction is done at Nutrizeal Ltd here in Nelson.
We take the extract and put it into gelatine capsules with different formulations and that goes to the market. We started selling capsules in November last year. We sell a lot in New Zealand to other brands, also to the UK, the US, Japan, Indonesia and China. New Zealand and the UK take about 85% of our sales at present.
Market reaction has been superb. At the moment we are operating on pilot scale and we are just launching a funding programme to increase our capacity four or five times over the next six months.?/P>
There are only three or four other companies in the world that grow astaxanthin in this way but they use ponds or outdoor systems. The New Zealand production is unique because it is indoors and relatively low capital cost. Tony says that as long as there is power and CO2 it could be duplicated anywhere in the world.
밫he reason we have built in New Zealand is because of the environment, the Cawthron Institute as our technology partner, and because I뭢 a Kiwi and I want to develop an industry here in New Zealand and with the New Zealand strain. Brand New Zealand is important to our marketing campaign ?grown here, processed here, and a very short product cycle so there is limited loss of potency, and Brand New Zealand has a lot of value in south-east Asia and America,?he says.
밫he future demand for the product is looking very good and is taking off globally ?this is the next fish oil. It is going to be big because it has a lot of benefits and it뭩 a matter of focusing on ones that are key.?/P>
Internationally there are more than 500 papers published on the efficacy of astaxanthin as an antioxidant and its health benefits in scientific and medical journals, says Tony.
밃n antioxidant neutralises free radicals. Astaxanthin has between 13 and 19 sites at which it can neutralise free radicals including oxygen species and nitrate species. These are things that are charged and if they are not neutralised they will go and steal electrons from somewhere else, and then you get cascading problems that can cause inflammation and a lot of disease. Arthritis or joint problems, recovery from sports ?for all of those things people taking astaxanthin can get a reasonable to significant improvement, and basically what it is doing is helping the body deal with free radicals that are produced either within the body or as a result of external influences like sunlight, radiation, chemicals in the air, food and normal bodily functions.
The body has a lot of antioxidants in it to battle these things but potentially not enough if we don뭪 get sufficient in our diet. Astaxanthin neutralises these free radicals and allows the body to heal itself.
For example, if you sit at the computer screen all day, at the end of the day your eyes are quite tired. If you take astaxanthin that is greatly reduced and may go away. Our medical director confirms that astaxanthin had been clearly shown to help with eyestrain problems and can also halt macular degeneration which is a major problem.
Alternative health websites are fulsome in their praise of astaxanthin, and claim that research has shown that it can improve health by:
?Boosting immune function
?Reducing inflammation from all causes, including arthritis and asthma
?Improving endurance, workout performance and recovery
?Improving cardiovascular health by reducing C-Reactive Proteins (CRP), reducing triglycerides, and increasing beneficial HDL
?Actually helping to prevent sunburn, and protecting from the damaging effects of radiation (i.e., flying in airplanes, x-rays, CT scans, etc.)
?Reducing oxidative damage to your DNA
?Protecting eyes from cataracts, macular degeneration, and blindness
?Reducing symptoms from pancreatitis, multiple sclerosis, carpal tunnel syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, Parkinson뭩 disease, and Lou Gehrig뭩 disease, and neurodegenerative diseases
?Protecting the brain from dementia and Alzheimer뭩
?Helping to stabilise blood sugar, thereby protecting kidneys
?Relieving indigestion and reflux
?Improving fertility by increasing sperm strength and sperm count