6 July 2017

Seed Money Grant for freshwater ferns

‘If Azolla were a crop, it would have a serious beneficial ecological effect’

Peter Bijl, Thomas Schonewille and Henriette Schlupmann
Peter Bijl, Thomas Schonewille and Henriette Schlupmann

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.”

We hope to convince the food industry of Azolla’s potential

Right moment

Until now, the laboratory research into Azolla has been financed by Climate-KIC, one of Europe’s largest public-private partnerships in the field of climate change.  However, the figures are so positive that the time has arrived to bring the research a step closer to practice. Unfortunately, it is proving difficult to obtain fundamental funding.

“The Seed Money Grant came at just the right moment for us,” says Bijl, “because we can use the financing to take a step forward. For example, now we can show companies a test set-up. That way, we hope to convince the food industry of Azolla’s potential.”

Missing link

“The contacts outside of the university are therefore very important,” Schonewille adds, “because they’re the companies that can develop this technology further. And that will only work if you can actually show the industry how an animal reacts to the crop. That’s the next step: determining the feed value of Azolla for animals.”

“The partnership with Veterinary Medicine was exactly what we needed for our research,” says Schlupmann. “Their input was the missing link. That’s the great thing about working at Utrecht University. Since we study so many broad topics here, all of the important parties are within easy reach.”

No competition

As the demand for food products will only increase over the coming years, the researchers are convinced of the potential of Azolla as a crop. “What’s good about Azolla,” Bijl explains, “Is that it’s not a competitor for existing agricultural areas. Azolla grows on water, and at the moment that’s one area which isn’t being exploited.” With the results of their research, Bijl, Schlupmann and Schonewille have a solution to offer. Now they only need to wait for the industry to put their technology into practice.