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UC San Diego Study Shows Algae Could Alleviate Human Gut Problems

Beakers of algae and water sit in a UC San Diego lab in this photo, Jan. 30, ...

Photo by Shalina Chatlani

Above: Beakers of algae and water sit in a UC San Diego lab in this photo, Jan. 30, 2020.

At a lab on the UC San Diego campus, scientist Frank Fields might be found in a loud room, gazing upon dozens of green-tinted beakers. They're filled with all kinds of algae and water mixtures that are sloshing around on shake tables.

“When they are shaking down there, this helps mix the algae...so we can get more carbon dioxide in there and allow the cells to grow faster," Fields said.

Listen to this story by Shalina Chatlani.

Fields spends a lot of time in this lab, run by UC San Diego professor Stephen Mayfield. He and other researchers grow algae samples, including one specific species, Chlamydomonas reinhardtii, which he says has been studied and used in different products for decades. Until now, it hadn't been studied as a potential food product.

“We’ve usually explored it as a host for the production of pharmaceuticals or biofuels, but now that we are starting to look at how we can use algae as a food, we wanted to focus on this species," Fields said.

Scientists first looked at the effects of algae in mice with some stomach problems. Those mice appeared to get better. Then, these researchers asked a group of about 50 people, half with healthy guts and the other half with conditions like irritable bowel syndrome, to eat a couple of scoops of this algae — in freeze-dried powder form — for a month.

Reported by Shalina Chatlani , Video by Nicholas Mcvicker

Fields said the powder could be consumed in many ways, such as smoothies, and tastes like matcha green tea powder.

“This is 40 to 50% protein, 10 to 20% oil, some carbohydrates, some fiber and lots of vitamins. It's a very nutritiously dense substance and that’s why we’re interested in working with it," said Fields, who is the lead author on this study.

"And what we found in both the case of the mice and our human volunteers is that they both improved in their gastrointestinal function over time as they were eating this algae."

Other forms of algae can be found in nutritional stores, but Chlamydomonas reinhardtii is new to the nutritional health world.

Stephen Mayfield, principal investigator on the study, says the research shows some preliminary evidence that it could help people with their gut problems.

“People have been looking at this algae for decades, but this is the first study to show what many of us have suspected — it’s good for you,” Mayfield said. “This is exciting because it demonstrates a clear benefit: If you have IBS-like symptoms, this is good for you.”

The participants without stomach problems maintained healthy guts.

Fields said this is a first look into this specific species of algae as a food source, so there ought to be more studies.

"There hasn’t been a study like this before," he said. "So this is kind of just the tip of the spear."

Fields said the company making this powder algae product is hoping to do a follow-up study.

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Photo of Shalina Chatlani

Shalina Chatlani
Science and Technology Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI cover all things science and technology — from the biotech industry in San Diego to rooftop solar energy on new homes. I'm interested in covering the human side of science and technology, like barriers to entry for people of color or gender equity issues on biotech boards.

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