Marine macroalgae, also referred to as seaweeds or kelp, are a group of exceptionally diverse aquatic plants. Macroalgae can be found along nearly all coastlines around the globe and in some cases also in the open ocean. They have traditionally been used for food and feed, as well as fertilizer. In 2016, the world produced approximately 26 million wet metric tons of seaweed, primarily through highly labor-intensive farming techniques. While macroalgae production has increased six-fold over the past quarter-century, the current state of macroalgae “mariculture” is not capable of achieving the scale, efficiency and production costs necessary to support a seaweed-to-fuels industry. Dramatically increasing productivity will require significant advancements in the domestication of macroalgae and new farming technologies. To accelerate the development of critical tools and technologies, the MARINER program is supporting projects in five areas: 1) Integrated Cultivation & Harvest System Design, 2) Critical Enabling Components, 3) Computational Modeling, 4) Monitoring Tools, and 5) Breeding & Genomic Tools.
Project Innovation + Advantages:
The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution leads a MARINER Category 5 project, to develop a selective breeding program for sugar kelp, Saccharina latissima, one of the most commercially important kelp varieties. The goal of the project is to improve productivity and cost effectiveness of seaweed farming. The breeding program will build a germplasm library associated with plants that produce a 20% to 30% yield improvement over plants currently in the field. By using a combination of novel rapid phenotyping, genome-wide association studies, and genome prediction methods, the team expects to accelerate the production of improved plants while decreasing the number of costly field evaluations. The project will conduct sampling and testing at field sites in New England and Alaska. If successful, the team will establish a breeding program that increases the quantitative genetic knowledge and genomic resources necessary to make informed breeding decisions — enabling the first step towards domestication and economically viable production of sugar kelp for bioenergy production in the United States.
If successful, MARINER projects strive to develop the tools needed to allow the United States to become a world leader in marine biomass production for multiple important applications, including the production of biofuels.
Production of biofuels and bioenergy from domestically produced marine biomass could ensure that the U.S. has at its disposal a scalable, domestic source of low-carbon energy supplies.
Growing large amounts of macroalgae would not compete with land-based food crops, requires no fresh water and can be grown without the addition of energy-intensive, synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. Large-scale macroalgae cultivation may help reduce the negative effects of nutrient overload and ocean acidification in many coastal ocean regions.
A domestic macroalgae industry would not only create a valuable new source of domestic energy, but also create significant new economic and employment opportunities in many waterfront communities along the U.S. coasts from Maine to the Gulf of Mexico, Alaska, and the Pacific Islands.