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The next generation of farming in New England: seaweed (Released: 12/1/95)

by Renu Sehgal, Office of University Communications.

STORRS, Conn. -- The next generation of farmers will don wet suits and gather the fruits of the ocean. And New England may be the first region in the United States to cash in on this burgeoning industry.

Researchers from the University of Connecticut and other New England universities and a Maine company have been given a $1.2 million federal grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to develop a farm cultivating nori, a red seaweed that is highly nutritious and used in many industries.

Researchers from UConn, Northeastern University, the University of Maine and the University of New Hampshire want to develop a viable nori industry to diversify New England's economy because it is relatively inexpensive to cultivate yet labor-intensive. The three-year project began in July.

"Seaweed farms could employ laid-off fisherman or others who have been employed in the fishing industry," said Charles Yarish, a Stamford-based UConn professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. "Others in the maritime trades could be involved in building the infrastructures needed for these farms."

Nori farming is a $2 billion industry in Japan alone. But it's virtually untapped in North America. Also called Porphyra, nori is low in cholesterol and high in protein, calcium and vitamins A and C. It is being researched as a treatment for stomach cancer and ulcers. It even cleanses the water in which it grows.

"Many types of seaweed are consumed as a direct food source by millions of people throughout the world, but it is also used as binding and smoothing agents in food, health and beauty products, paper finishes, textiles and biochemicals," Yarish said.

Substances extracted from red seaweed, such as carrageenan, are what make ice cream creamy and toothpaste squeeze out of tubes. Alginates, a group of compounds extracted from brown seaweed, are used in gelling compounds and the coating of time-released capsules, to stabilize the emulsion of film, and as a binding agent in skin grafting, he said.

Carrageenan is being tested for its ability to halt the AIDS virus.

"It's a plant that's full of surprises," Yarish said.

Yarish is one of the team's principal investigators. He will lead the team in the project's first phase -- evaluating Porphyra found between the Connecticut coast and the Canadian Maritime provinces. Several types of native nori will be studied and cultured to determine the best growing conditions and which would be most suitable for commercial cultivation.

Yarish and other researchers will study the different DNA structures of the species so they can develop the best type through gene manipulation. Yarish, who has done extensive work on the cultivation and genetics of seaweed, has helped farming efforts in China and East Africa.

Helping Yarish will be Professor X.G. Fei, head of the experimental marine biotechnology program at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Yarish and Fei will exchange information in a program sponsored by the NOAA. Scientists in Asia have studied their native species of nori since the early 196 0s and have already selectively bred types.

Researchers in Massachusetts, Maine and New Hampshire will now develop methods to make strains of nori with certain compounds. The project entails creating genetic libraries for strains that will have different properti es so scientists in the future can improve the strains and study them. Some of the nori strains will have introduced genes that scientists hope will create a plant that can cure diseases, Yarish said.

To farm the nori, researchers will be using part of a 120-acre nursery leased from the state of Maine by Coastal Plantations International Inc. in Cobscook Bay. The company has the only seaweed farm in North America, producing about 1 million sheets of nori last year. The company offered the nori researchers access to its nursery facility for the nori experimental farm, Yarish said.

The project is funded by a grant from the NOAA to the Sea Grant programs of Connecticut and New Hampshire-Maine. There are 29 such programs in the United States whose mission it is to sponsor marine and coastal research, technology transfer and marine education. The Connecticut Sea Grant College Program is based at the Marine Sciences and Technology Center at the University of Connecticut's Avery Point campus in Groton.

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