The Frontiers of Science

Euglena: A Microorganism with “Macro” Potential

Science Technology Society Lifestyle

The biotech company Euglena is attracting attention for pioneering an amazing algae-like microorganism of the same name that has the potential to address global food shortages and environmental problems. The microorganism, with its high nutritional content and powers of carbon sequestration, could be a game-changer for the planet.

More Than Meets the Eye

At first glance, it may seem hard to believe that the tiny green microorganism euglena, only 0.05 mm in length, has the potential to save the world. The single-celled organism, common to the diverse algal blooms found in any rice paddy or pond, is often grouped together with seaweed and other aquatic plants, given its habitat and ability to feed itself through photosynthesis. But things aren’t quite so simple. Euglena also has a number of animal-like traits, including the ability to move around. Since the microorganism is not strictly a plant or an animal, it has been grouped with the “Protista kingdom,” that catch-all term for whatever organism does not fit neatly into an established category. 

One thing that makes euglena special is its ability to reproduce rapidly and to grow while relying on nothing more than water and light for sustenance. It is also highly nutritious, containing 59 different vitamins, minerals, and amino acids. In addition, its ability to photosynthesize means that it might be used to help reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas.

Adding euglena in powdered form to nutritional supplements, drinks, or cookies could be an effective way to provide people with their daily nutritional requirements. Toward that end, the venture-capital firm Euglena Co. has been making a name for itself as a leading producer of products containing the useful microorganism.

The company’s use of euglena is not limited to the manufacture and sale of foodstuffs and cosmetics; it is also using the remarkable microorganism in a variety of other ways, including the production of biofuels. The president of Euglena, Izumo Mitsuru, hopes that the company’s products will not only improve people’s health but also bring benefits to the planet itself.

Once cultured, euglena is extracted using a centrifuge (left), before being passed through a spray drier (center). After this, powdered euglena (right) is ready for use in nutritional supplements and other products.

A Life-Changing Trip

For Izumo and his company, the journey leading up to this point began in 1998, with his trip to Bangladesh. He was saddened by the number of malnourished children he saw there and set about searching for some kind of nutritious foodstuff that could make a real difference to their lives. Eventually, Izumo hit upon euglena and, driven by his hope to address the world’s food problems, decided to start his own business.

However, when he sought out the advice of experts on microbiology, he was invariably told that euglena was too difficult to culture; and indeed there was no precedent at the time for production of the species on the scale that Izumo’s project required.

Taking matters into his own hands, Izumo teamed up with Suzuki Kengo (now Euglena’s director of research and development) to develop the necessary cultivation techniques and technology. They soon ran into difficulties, however, and were on the verge of abandoning the project when they met and secured the services of Fukumoto Takuyuki (now Euglena’s marketing director), who had management experience at a supplier of functional foods. In 2005, the three jointly founded the company Euglena.

Mounting a Nationwide Endeavor

Izumo Mitsuru, president of Euglena Co.

In their quest to develop the cultivation methods needed, Izumo and his colleagues contacted euglena researchers throughout Japan. Impressed by the enthusiasm of the three entrepreneurs, numerous researchers offered their services, making it possible for the company to receive assistance from academia and the private sector, including access to research facilities at such respected institutions as the University of Tokyo, Osaka Prefecture University, and Kinki University. As a result, by the end of 2005 Izumo’s team had finally succeeded in producing the world’s first large-scale outdoor euglena cultivation tank.

The key to this success was a piece of lateral thinking. Using conventional cultivation techniques, difficulties arise when other types of unwanted microorganisms also develop and start to prey on the euglena. Initially the team had focused without success on creating a setting that protected the euglena from predators, but in a leap of imagination they changed the emphasis to an environment in which only euglena could survive. Putting this radical new concept into effect, they managed to produce a bountiful supply of euglena in an outdoor tank.

Izumo attributes the team’s unprecedented success in large-scale euglena cultivation to the extensive help they enlisted from all across the country. “Researchers from all over Japan stood shoulder to shoulder with us in our quest to improve the world through euglena,” he says. “It really was a nationwide endeavor.”

Fast forward to the present day and we see that enquiries about the uses of euglena are coming in from all over the world. For the company to meet this increasing demand, it will need to further refine its setup to enable even more reliable, high-quality production. Work on improving the incubation techniques continues apace at Euglena’s facility on the Okinawan island of Ishigakijima. The various types of euglena produced there for food or biofuel products are shipped to a number of other research institutions.

Win-Win Applications

Euglena cultivation with a view to use in biofuel production.

The nutritional goodness that Euglena is capable of providing through its food products may also benefit livestock one day, not just humans. The company continues to research possible uses of the microorganism in carbon fixation and biofuel production through its partnership with universities and businesses all over Japan.

A clear difference can be seen in the color of the euglena culture before (left) and after a week’s exposure to emissions from the burning of fossil fuels. The deeper green in the right-hand tank indicates that euglena multiplied more rapidly through the stimulus of CO2.

But of all the applications currently being investigated, the most surprising is probably the idea of flying a plane using euglena extract. Because of the apparent structural suitability of an oil produced and stored by the microbes as a metabolic byproduct, there are high hopes for its use as a next-generation jet fuel.

There are also plans to utilize euglena as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Euglena can photosynthesize even at very high concentrations of CO2. This might make it possible to filter emissions from power plants that burn fossil fuels through a euglena-cultivation system to remove CO2 from the emissions while also boosting euglena production. Promising experiments into such techniques are already underway.

Remembering the Original Goal

The operational scale of Euglena has gradually increased over the years, and in December 2012, the company was listed on the Mothers index of the Tokyo Stock Exchange, which deals with high-growth startup companies. Reaching this milestone led Izumo and his team to refocus their attention on the primary motivation of the whole endeavor: bringing the health benefits of euglena to malnourished children in developing countries.

The company already has set up an office in Bangladesh and field tests are scheduled to start in the near future. “Our plans to open an office in Bangladesh fell a bit behind schedule due to political instability there,” Izumo notes. “But we’re working with an NGO to provide euglena-based school meals to local children, and we intend to observe and measure how this can improve nutrition.” 

Another consideration when seeking to introduce a new food to a developing nation is its compatibility with religious dietary restrictions, as Izumo explains: “There are around 1.8 billion Muslims in the world, and because Islam forbids the consumption of pork, it can sometimes be difficult for adherents to get enough vitamin B1 from food alone. I’d like to help overcome this problem through the vitamin content of euglena.”

Euglena Co.’s products have already received official Halal certification, and there are plans to expand distribution to other Muslim countries, starting with Bangladesh.

The use of euglena in biotechnology is one area where the strength of Japan really shines through. The country boasts a long tradition of using fermentation for the production of miso, soy sauce, and sake; those traditional methods are similar, in many respects, to the technologies employed to use euglena in food and in energy production.

Inspired by this heritage, Izumo views the future with unbridled optimism, confidently proclaiming that the power of euglena allied to Japan’s unrivaled fermentation methods “has the power to save the world.”

(Originally written in Japanese by Satō Narumi. Photographs courtesy of Euglena Co. Banner image shows euglena cells as seen under a microscope.)

environment science Health technology developing countries