Azolla is an aquatic fern that grows around the world in standing or slowly flowing fresh water. In the future, it could become an addition to our diet. Peter Bijl, Henriette Schlupmann and Thomas Schonewille, researchers at Utrecht University’s faculties of Geosciences, Biology and Veterinary Medicine, have received a 10,000 Euro Seed Money Grant from Future Food Utrecht to study whether Azolla could be used as food for animals or humans. If so, then the plant could have an enormously positive ecological impact.
Peter Bijl, lecturer and researcher at Geosciences, leads a foundation that translates scientific discoveries for a wide audience. During an expedition to the Arctic in 2004, his promotor, Henk Brinkhuis, discovered spores of the Azolla plant in oceanic sediment. “That was a sign that the plant can grow under a wide range of conditions,” Bijl explains. “We asked botanists to tell us more about the plant, and we became convinced that Azolla could be useful in all sorts of applications.”
The group then invited molecular biologist Henriëtte Schlupmann to participate in their research. She focused on Azolla’s growth and reproduction processes. “The great thing about Azolla is that it doesn’t need nitrogen to produce proteins, like most other plants do,” Schlupmann says. “Azolla just draws it from the air, and it produces three times as much as plants like maize, so if we could grow Azolla as a crop, it would have an enormous ecological impact. That would allow us to drastically reduce our imports of soy beans, one of the main components of animal feed at the moment.”
Azolla burger on the menu
In addition to acquiring knowledge about the chemical makeup of Azolla and its reproductive process, it was just as important to involve someone with expertise in the field of animal nutrition in the study. That is how Thomas Schonewille, lecturer and researcher at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, came to the project. “Our department has the knowledge we need to determine whether Azolla has the potential to become an ingredient of animal feed. We work closely together with Wageningen UR, where we can test the digestibility of Azolla under in-vitro conditions.”
The researchers chuckle at the idea that Azolla might be on the menu for humans in the near future. “We fried up an Azolla burger, as a test,” Bijl says. “It tasted a bit walnutty, and it wasn’t bad. But I wouldn’t recommend cooking with Azolla at home yet. The plant needs to be improved first.”