Our Organisation Search
Quick Links
Toggle: Topics

How seaweed can be used as a medicine to fight infection

How seaweed can be used as a medicine to fight infection

Scientists are discovering the incredible health properties of Irish seaweeds to make medicines to combat dangerous superbugs

Lots of countries across the world have used natural medicines such as seaweed for thousands of years, but only recently has their potential for pharmaceutical medicines been investigated. With over 40,000 tonnes of seaweed harvested on Irish shores each year, Ireland has the potential to become a global leader in medicines sourced from seaweeds.

The rise of superbugs

Over the last few decades, many of the bacterias, viruses and fungi that infect humans have evolved to become resistant to conventional antimicrobial medicines. Indeed, we're now at the the point where certain antimicrobials no longer work. Such antimicrobial resistance makes it much more difficult to cure infections (for example superbugs refer to bacteria that can survive almost all current antimicrobials and can be extremely dangerous for human health).

It is predicted that over 10 million people will die each year from antimicrobial-resistant infections by 2050 and the World Health Organisation has declared antimicrobial resistance to be one of the top 10 global public health threats facing humanity. Scientists are now turning to alternative and unconventional sources for new antimicrobials which microorganisms are not resistant to, such as naturally occurring medicinal properties in plants and seaweeds.

Can seaweeds help?

Seaweeds have been an important part of many diets worldwide for thousands of years, and are used as natural medicines in many cultures. Due to the harsh environment in the world's seas and oceans, seaweeds produce many different chemicals to protect themselves in their natural habitat, including antimicrobial chemicals or compounds to protect them from bacteria in the sea.

It has been found that seaweeds are full of thousands of these 'bioactive’ compounds which have health benefits such as antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, and anti-cancer properties to name a few. Scientists have begun to explore the natural antimicrobial compounds inside seaweeds to see if they could be used as medicines to cure infections in humans.

Early results show that bioactive compounds from seaweeds are able to kill microorganisms such as bacteria and viruses. This opens up many avenues for the future of antimicrobial research; compounds from seaweeds could be used as partial or full replacements of antimicrobial medicines, included in antibacterial household cleaning products, or even used as natural food preservatives for packaged foods.

Irish researchers are currently investigating local seaweeds and their ability to kill bacteria. Winged kelp is a common brown seaweed found in Ireland, which has been found to be able to kill E. coli, a bacteria that infects food.

Antimicrobial compounds from seaweeds could become environmentally friendly alternatives to conventional antimicrobial agents, which are normally made from synthetic chemicals. Seaweeds are a renewable natural resource and can absorb carbon dioxide. Farming seaweed can be done offshore so it does not compete for land use with food production, and seaweeds can be processed using sustainable technologies.

Ailbhe McGurrin discusses her research into seaweed as medicine

Researchers in Teagasc are using new extraction techniques such as ultrasounds and microwaves, which are energy efficient and use non-toxic chemicals (usually water), to extract the bioactive compounds from inside the seaweeds. As scientists discover more and more of the potential of seaweeds in medicine, it is vital that we preserve the sustainability of this green solution to antimicrobial resistance.

Seaweed for Ireland's future

Seaweed could become an important part of Ireland's marine economy, with the global market value of the seaweed industry expected to reach $22.13 billion by 2024. Currently, it is estimated that about 40,000 tonnes of seaweed is harvested each year in Ireland, the third highest in Europe after Norway and France, with most of this being processed into food products or animal feed.

Bord Iascaigh Mhara (Irish Sea Fisheries Board) estimates that only 1% of Ireland’s seaweed is converted into higher-value outputs such as cosmetics and medicinal products, but this amounts to 30% of the total commercial value. There is a significant market opportunity for Ireland to increase the proportion of native seaweed that is converted into high value products such as antimicrobial compounds. Irish researchers are hoping that by developing seaweed bioactives as novel antimicrobial compounds, they can help fight against antimicrobial resistance as well as contributing to Ireland’s marine economy.

Ailbhe McGurrin is a PhD Researcher in Marine Biotechnology at UCD, in collaboration with Teagasc and Bantry Marine Research Station. She is an Irish Research Council awardee. Research is funded by the Irish Research Council Enterprise Partnership Scheme (project code EPSPG/2021/154)

This article was first published on RTE Brainstorm