While biofuel might be the prime mover for KAS, it’s not the only market for designer algae. Nutraceutical companies, which have historically struggled to maintain high yields, are looking to KAS to supply algae that produce DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), an omega-3 fatty acid also found in fish oil. Studies show that DHA is linked to improved mental development and intelligence, so it’s a common ingredient in premium infant formula; DHA produced by microalgae has the added benefit of being vegetarian. Yet another possibility is the creation of algae that can grow optimal mixes of omega-3 and omega-6 oils. “You can really fine-tune these organisms and turn them into producers of customized nutritional supplements. Companies wouldn’t have to blend the oils. They could just grow them both in the same algae or in the same pond,” says Kuehnle.
Another likely use is as a potent seed stock for aquaculture. Pond-based aquaculture operations growing filter feeders such as oysters used to grow their own algae. But that took almost as much time and energy as growing the crop itself, so aquaculturists resorted to buying dried, dead algae grown elsewhere. Kuehnle hopes to convince these operations to buy her seed stock, which can be added directly to the tanks and will quickly grow to feed the animals. “Shrimp and other algae eaters are much healthier and grow much more quickly if they are fed a diet of live algae,” says Kuehnle. To this end, KAS has approached state and federal agencies to propose the creation of dual-purpose algae-and-shrimp farms in the Gulf of Mexico region. This would create a land-based, oil-free seafood industry that could help replace a fishery decimated by the Deepwater Horizon spill and provide opportunities to affected shrimpers.
To date, KAS has relied on investments and research grants from government agencies. The company is now looking to raise venture capital to fund a facility here in Hawai‘i that would allow it to dramatically increase its output. Beyond making money, though, Kuehnle aims to grow a business that improves the world. In her vision of an algae-powered future, oil tankers will no longer be needed because algae biofuels will have eliminated the need to ship oil. Pharmaceutical companies will use specialized algae to quickly grow flu vaccines. Health nuts will toss out their fish oil capsules and replace them with purer, more healthful and more environmentally friendly algae oil capsules. This vision will be enabled, at least in part, by the library of algae species stored in Hawai‘i, a Noah’s Ark of organisms from the most remote island chain on Earth.