The human body is well equipped to produce a number of vital nutrients for survival but some are simply not made and are deemed essential. We can acquire these compounds, such as tryptophan, Vitamin B12, and omega-3 fatty acids through diet. Yet some eating routines, such as the Standard American Diet, lack these vital ingredients requiring supplementation.
Finding a large enough supply of certain nutrients like omega-3-fatty acids can be difficult at best as some of the most common sources – in this case, fish – are already in short supply. As a result, researchers have turned to microbes to mass produce these needed sources such that we can easily acquire them in pill format at the local grocery or pharmacy.
One of the most promising avenues for identifying natural sources of nutrients happens to be algae. These microscopic creatures are plentiful and can be grown to large numbers easily. All one needs to do is mimic the right environment and then wait for the microbes to grow. Once they have reached a certain limit, they can be harvested, broken down, and put through processes to extract the molecules of interest.
Apart from algae, protozoa may also provide these nutrients. One example is the genus Euglena. The organism feeds on algal species and picks up several nutrients including antioxidants, vitamins C and E, and also omega-3-fatty acids. Euglena also produces a compound known as paramylon, which has bioactive properties and may be linked to improved health.
Using a protozoan species to extract nutrients can be rather advantageous. Unlike algae, they are easily broken down making the process simpler and less expensive. Moreover, several algal species contain human toxins whereas this is not a serious concern with Euglena. The only real concern deals with the amount of nutrients produced by the cell. At the moment, the extraction process is still relatively costly due to the lack of high levels of wanted supplements. Pricing at the retail level would therefore become too costly. To gain the most benefits from the protozoan, the organisms would have to mass produce the compounds. How to accomplish this feat has been, however, elusive.
Now there may be a route forward. Last week, a Chinese team of researchers reported their examination of different culturing methods for Euglena. The results may offer a path to production such that we get the most from this microscopic organism.
The researchers focused on the species Euglena gracilis, which is one of the more commonly studied species in this genus. They grew the organism in one of two conditions: light or dark. The difference would mimic day vs night growth and determine which one might be best for maximal nutrient production.
Once they had finished the growth cultures, the team then began to analyze the nutrients. They examined the levels of polyunsaturated fatty acids, paramylon, and several other metabolites associated with stimulating growth. The hope was to see similar differences in all three factors between light and dark such that they could decide on one direction for mass production.
There was interestingly no consensus. Higher amounts of polyunsaturated fats including omega-3-fatty acids were produced during light conditions. In striking contrast, significantly more paramylon was produced in the dark. As for the metabolites, only a handful of differences were noted none of which would have any impact on the production of nutrients.
While the authors did not achieve the dream conditions they hoped to see, there was more than enough information to suggest moving forward with mass production. Growing cultures in either light or dark conditions would optimally develop higher amounts of omega-3-fatty acids or paramylon. The appropriate extraction process could then be used to make enough quantities of these molecules to be cost-efficient.
Although the concept of using protozoan-based supplements is still limited to the laboratory, the transition to large-scale manufacturing and retail availability may not be all that far away. Because these creatures naturally live and grow in blooms, the process to increase production may be relatively smooth. Once this feat has arrived, we may be able to increase those omega-3s and paramylon concentrations without too much damage to our wallets.