2021 Slam Top 12 Finalists

Lydia's Interview with Brian Malow

"From Waste To Wanted - The Seaweed Story"

Lydia Rachbauer


Remember the last time you were at the beach? Everything was perfect; sun was shining, sand was warm; the cool ocean waiting for you… and then you see it: the slimy seaweed barrier between you and the water. And did you notice the smell?

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could turn this nasty goop NOBODY wants to see at the beach, into something essential and useful, something we want and need, every single day? Actually we can!

When converted into liquid fuel, seaweed could substitute 10% of the nation's transportation energy demand. If you’re one for the actual numbers: that’s 21 hundred 620 million gallons of fuel!

But we do need some help from tiny microbes; because, in nature, this beautiful seaweed is made to persist. Seaweed is like a thick rope with multiple intertwined strings making it extremely hard to decompose. It has a super complex structure with a lot of chemical bonds to resist degradation as much as possible. That’s why it takes at least 6 months for seaweed to compost. By that time the beach season is over.

That’s why I am looking for enzymes that break down these tough structures fast; and since our digestive tract is great at decomposing our food, my search starts in a fish’s gut. My challenge is to screen tons of microbes to find expert degraders producing enzymes with just the right kind of tools. Imagine it as a “Swiss Army Knife”, found in a fish’s gut. Sometimes you need a larger blade to break down the structure into smaller pieces so the enzymes can tackle the bonds from all ends. And sometimes you need little scissors to fit the tiny gaps in the tightly bonded structure.

Once I have identified the successful microbes, I take a closer look at their genetic blueprints to copy their enzymes and eventually reconstruct the Swiss Army Knife to repeat their successful solution, without the fish.

I want you to remember that the highly specific enzymes in a fish gut do an exceptional job in breaking the tough and resilient structure and by that, allow us to turn seaweed into a multitude of useful products, including renewable fuel.

My research aims to fuel your beach vacation, and the next time you’re at the beach remember me and my fish guts and how they can help clean up the shores while filling your tank.