1/2017

Algae produce the strongest antioxidant in nature

Microalgae produce bio-oil for energy and valuable pigments for therapeutic applications. Microbiologist Praveen Ramasamy is developing methods that make algae more efficient in this production of materials and the collection of these materials more profitable.

Praveen Ramasamy

 

Praveen Ramasamy has made his academic career in the field of applied microbiology, especially the development of bioproducts from microalgae. At present, his work is funded by the TTY Foundation’s two-year postdoctoral funding programme.

 

WHO? Postdoctoral Researcher Praveen Ramasamy, 30

  • Born in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, India.
  • Education: 2009 Master of Science, 2013 Doctor of Philosophy (microbiology), Bharathidasan University, India.
  • Work history: 2013–2015 Senior Researcher, Korea Institute of Energy Research, Daejeon, South Korea. 2015–July 2017 Postdoctoral Researcher, Laboratory of Chemistry and Bioengineering, TUT. August 2017– Marie Curie Fellow, KU Leuven, Belgium.
  • Lives in Hervanta.
  • Family: Single. Parents, elder sister, and niece in India.
  • Hobbies: Plays floorball two or three times a week, which he has learned while in Finland. Another favourite sport of his is badminton.
 

Praveen Ramasamy first became interested in microalgae and their cultivation while working on his Master’s thesis. As a doctoral and postdoctoral researcher, he has concentrated on the bioproducts produced by algae. In practice, these bioproducts amount to bio-oil, that is processed into biodiesel, and the pigment like astaxanthin, which is incredibly valuable.

Astaxanthin is not only a deep-red pigment but also the most powerful known antioxidant. Astaxanthin is often used for therapeutic applications or as a nutritional additive, and it is known to strengthen the immune system, prevent inflammation, and improve the health of the muscles, eyes, brain, heart, and circulatory system.

“The microalgae Haematococcus pluvialis produce astaxanthin naturally, and I have developed methods of boosting their productivity and energy-efficient extraction at TUT,” says Praveen Ramasamy.

Demand for naturally-produced astaxanthin is growing, but using algae to produce it is still very complicated and very pricey.

“The price of natural astaxanthin is many times higher than that of synthetically produced pigment. At present, only one per cent of all astaxanthin used worldwide comes from nature.”

The ultimate goal of this research is to develop a bio-refinery, where usable materials are gradually collected from cultivated algae in a way that is financially viable.

“After the desired molecules have been removed from the algal biomass, we will follow the principles of circular economy and find uses for the residual biomass. In Finland, the most natural use for this residue could be in biogas processing. Biogas processing already utilises sludge from the pulp and paper industry, and algae biomass would bring some much-needed nitrogen into the process.”

European research sparked interest

Praveen was already closely monitoring the European research in his field during his postdoctoral stint in South Korea.

“Germany, Spain, and the Netherlands were the big players, but I was also familiar with the research of TUT’s Laboratory of Chemistry and Bioengineering through newsletters and research articles. In addition, I had a contact to Professor Jukka Rintala, whose new research openings seemed very interesting. The TTY Foundation’s two-year postdoctoral funding programme allowed me to jump aboard, as well.”

In addition to conducting his own research, Praveen acts as mentor to the younger researchers in his group. He says he greatly enjoys working with different kinds of people from different backgrounds and nationalities.

Finland gives time and space for thought

“The South Korean research environment is highly competitive and demanding. The Finnish way of working is entirely different. Here you are given the time to think things through in a wider context and the space to build your own career.”

The next chapter of Praveen’s career begins in August at the KU Leuven in Belgium. As a recipient of the Marie Curie grant, his goal is to develop more affordable ways of harvesting microscopic algae from the growth medium and separating the pigment from their cells.

His future plans also include the foundation of his own research group, hopefully funded by ERC’s Starting Grant.

“I would love to come back to Finland in the future. This is a peaceful, safe, and clean country, and the people are so helpful and heartfelt. And oh, how I’ll miss floorball...”

Text: Kati Vastamäki
Photo: Virpi Andersin

 
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