Project of the University of Coimbra bets on the valorization of sargassum

A team of researchers from the University of Coimbra (UC) is leading a project that aims to develop innovative products from sargassum, a name given on the north coast to the mixture of different algae that grow on rocky platforms and are detached from the rocks with the movement of waves, laying on the seashore.

In particular, the project “ValSar: Valorização do Sargaço da Costa Litoral Norte”, financed by European funds (FEAMP) through MAR2020 – GAL Coastal Norte, proposes to develop new biofertilizers and biostimulants (organic natural product, generally poor in nutrients, but rich in bioactive compounds that stimulate natural processes of a culture, such as, for example, the absorption of nutrients, among others) for application in agriculture, as well as to evaluate the potential application of bioactive compounds from sargassum in the pharmaceutical and cosmetics sector.

The project, carried out with the collaboration of the Escola Superior Agrária de Coimbra (ESAC) and the Interdisciplinary Center for Marine and Environmental Research (CIIMAR), and with the support of the municipalities of Vila do Conde and Póvoa do Varzim, aims to identify business opportunities that allow the promotion of local development within the scope of the economy of the sea and consists of three phases – characterization of the sargassum; study, selection and tests with compounds extracted from sargassum; and dissemination of the knowledge produced, not only among the scientific community and the general public but also among investors.

«The harvesting of sargassum was a very important economic activity in the past, especially in agriculture, but currently it is an almost extinct practise on the north coast, between Viana do Castelo, Póvoa do Varzim and Vila do Conde, an area of ​​the country where the harvesting of sargassum it was more common. We want to value this set of algae that are abundant on our continental shelf and that are underused. Sargassum is a very rich organic mixture, both in terms of mineral compounds and in terms of biochemical compounds», contextualizes Cristina Rocha, a researcher at the Center for Marine and Environmental Sciences (MARE) of the Faculty of Sciences and Technology of the University of Coimbra. (FCTUC) and project coordinator.

To achieve the project’s objectives, the team started by seasonally characterizing the diversity, quantity and chemical and biochemical composition of the algal mixture. This characterization, explains Cristina Rocha, «allows us to identify the different bioactive compounds of sargassum and select the most promising for the products we intend to develop, that is, for the valorization that we propose».

Based on this information, the researchers will now move on to preparing the extracts. For the agricultural sector, the project bets on the development of a corrective fertilizing substrate, mixing sargassum with «urban solid waste to try to obtain a richer compost, which better enhances crop growth, as these algae contain many mineral compounds, some of them, for example, iodine, which we are not able to have in a compound based solely on bio-residues. We are also going to develop biostimulants», says the researcher from MARE-FCTUC.

These fertilizers and biostimulants will then be tested on a set of crops of economic interest for the North Coast region, such as cabbage, lettuce, beans and peppers.

In parallel, the team will explore the other product line aimed at the pharmaceutical and cosmetics sector. Knowing that algae have many bioactive compounds, «with different biological activities, such as antiviral, antibacterial, antifungal and antitumor, we will prepare extracts and test the bioactive compounds of these extracts in the immune system cell exposure assays. and in cell lines that represent the skin – the epidermis and dermis. Through these tests, which will be carried out at the Center for Neurosciences and Cell Biology (CNC-UC), we will be able to identify the dermatological potential of sargassum, that is, we will study anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, regenerative, anti-ageing and antiallergic properties, among others. », details the project leader.

Initiated a year ago, the ValSar project, concludes Cristina Rocha, has «a high collective interest since it aims to promote the valorization of economic and social activity and a natural resource of the North Coast region, focusing on product innovation. and biotechnology and creating conditions for entrepreneurship».

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