Innovation in seaweed research for food and biofuels would be boosted by a partnership between a research-intensive country such as Australia and a production-intensive nation such as Indonesia, a new study has found.
The study, led by the Spanish National Research Council and Winthrop Professor Carlos Duarte and Dr Ylva Olsen from The University of Western Australia's Oceans Institute, analysed seaweed patents registered between 1980 and 2009.
It found that Japan, China and Korea accounted for 84 per cent of seaweed patents, a figure that contrasts with that of other Asian countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam, which are also among the world's top producers of this type of algae, with few or no patents.
The study, published today in the journal Nature Biotechnology, examined the distribution of seaweed-derived product patents and applications between different countries. Researchers compared this distribution with production capacity (tonnes produced per country) and the scientific effort involved in the study of seaweed (number of scientific papers on seaweed aquaculture).
They found that combining seaweed production and research generated seaweed aquaculture innovation, accounting for the leadership of Japan, China and South Korea in this area.
As a result, countries such as Australia - with significant research effort (about three per cent of the global research output in this field) but no significant production - and nations such as Indonesia that produced seaweed but did not contribute to research, did not generate significant innovation.
"The results suggest that countries such as Australia and countries such as Indonesia could combine to propel innovation in seaweed aquaculture and biotechnology beyond the capacity of each nation separately," Professor Duarte said.
Traditionally cultivated for food, algae is an accessible marine resource because it grows in coastal areas. These crops increase at 7.5 per cent on average each year, according to the study. Macroalgae has become an important part of marine aquaculture through diversification of demand for products based on it for bioenergy, cosmetics and biomedicine applications.
Professor Duarte said although the rate of discovery of new marine species was low at 0.93 per cent per year, the number of domesticated marine species for aquaculture grew at a rate of three per cent annually. The number of marine natural products, such as cosmetics, industrial enzymes or genes derived from organisms, and marine gene patents was growing at a rate of four per cent and 12 per cent respectively per year.
This study was funded through a grant of Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations to Professor Duarte.
Partnerships between technologically advanced countries and developing nations with significant seaweed production capacity would boost innovation, help transfer knowledge and share resources more equitably, Professor Duarte said.