Many Australians have a poor fibre intake, according to the Australian Institute of Health & Welfare. Marine ecologist, entrepreneur and Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Wollongong Dr Pia Winberg explains how it is possible to improve the gut microbiome through introducing seaweed soluble dietary fibres in the western diet.
The gut microbiome is the population of microorganisms within our bodies, estimated at around 100 trillion (10 microbes per cell). At this scale, scientists are recognising the role our gut microbiome plays in many areas of health, including inflammatory diseases such as arthritis, cardiovascular conditions such as atherosclerosis and mental health disorders such as depression.
“We are now starting to understand how the microbiome is involved with the prevention of the many disorders due to chronic lifestyle of a poor gut, specifically one that is deficient in a diversity of fibre.”
Australia’s first commercial seaweed farm, Venus Shell Systems, was established by Winberg in 2013 and produces a unique bioactive extract from green seaweed. The extract can be ingested as soluble dietary fibre.
“Brown and red seaweed cultivation took off in the 1940s but we’re among the first to cultivate green seaweed. We can grow it on a land around twenty times faster than any other land crop,” says Winberg.
Venus Shell Systems is completing a study to explore how the extract could improve gut health.
“We did a full-scale clinical trial called BioBelly. We fed the extract to 65 people for six weeks to look at the effects of seaweed soluble dietary extracts on the gut microbiome,” Winberg explains.
Winberg is excited about the changes the extract has made in livestock gut flora patterns, and is looking forward to seeing whether there are similar effects in the human microbiome. BioBelly trial results are due in February, and already participants have provided positive anecdotal feedback and want to continue with the trial.
As a prebiotic, the green seaweed extract functions as food for the extensive microbial species that already exist inside of us, serving to boost the diversity of beneficial ones. This contrasts to probiotics where new microorganisms are selectively consumed.
Winberg and researchers at the University of Wollongong are studying green seaweed gels as part of new bioprinting research. The gels, used as a new ‘bioink’, provide a suitable material for cells to be grown in.
“The structure of green seaweed molecules is actually more similar to the human cell matrix – the glue holding our cells together. It’s exciting to explore how these gels can be used.”
Despite the applications of seaweeds in food and medicine, Winberg says Australia is yet to take part in the global seaweed industry.
“It’s a six billion dollar global crop for food production alone. Australia can excel, not by being the biggest seaweed industry, but by being the most quality controlled and sustainability focused.
– Guy Fenton