March 10, 2021

Meet our Plant Biologist, Dr. Arthur Grossman

Dr. Arthur Grossman, Ph.D

Dr. Grossman brings an impressive background and storied career in the biology field, especially regarding microalgae to his advisory role at GEM.  He has been a Staff Scientist at The Carnegie Institution for Science, Department of Plant Biology since 1982, and holds a courtesy appointment as Professor in the Department of Biology at Stanford University. He has performed research across fields ranging from plant biology, microbiology, marine biology, ecology, genomics, engineering and photosynthesis and initiated large scale algal genomics by leading the Chlamydomonas genome project.

In 2002 Dr. Grossman received the Darbaker Prize (Botanical Society of America) for work on microalgae and in 2009 received the Gilbert Morgan Smith Medal (National Academy of Sciences) for the quality of his publications on marine and freshwater algae. He has been Co-Editor in Chief of Journal of Phycology since 2013 and has served on the editorial boards of many well-respected  biological journals including the Annual Review of Genetics, Plant Physiology, Eukaryotic Cell, Journal of Biological Chemistry, Molecular Plant, and Current Genetics. He has also served on scientific advisory boards for both nonprofit and for profit companies including Phoenix Bioinformatics, Exelixis, Martek Biosciences, Solazyme/TerraVia, Checkerspot, Phycoil and now GEM. 

We sat down with Dr. Grossman for a short Q&A to get his perspective on GEM and all things algae—from myths to exciting research.

Tell us more about your work and your specific discipline. What is it and why is it important?

Most of my work is on how algae sense and acclimate to their environment, especially with respect to photosynthesis and nutrient acquisition and utilization (at the physiological, biochemical and molecular levels). These areas are important to both understand how algae will respond to the global changes in the environment (temperature, CO2 levels, salinity of the oceans, nutrient availability) and what the possibilities are for ameliorating the impact of global change. The work also suggests possibilities for increasing the growth of algae and the yields of products, which can be important for the future production of food and fuel.

Let’s start with the basics. What is algae?

That is a difficult question to answer, and honestly you will get different answers depending on who you ask. Generally, it is a loose term for a photosynthetic eukaryotic organism (although not all algae are photosynthetic) that can be either terrestrial or aquatic, can be both unicellular or macrophytic, some like the giant kelps reaching 50 meters, but that unlike plants, they do not have a vascular system (xylem and phloem).

When it comes to algae, what are some of the biggest myths and misconceptions?
  • Myth: Algae tastes bad and smells bad. 
    • Fact: Not always true! 
  • Myth: Algae are ‘pond scum’. 
    • Fact: A simplistic way of describing them which doesn’t help their reputation.
  • Myth: Algae are associated with eutrophication of environments and often linked to bacteria. 
    • Fact: All of these problems are caused by man and not algae.
  • Myth: Algae are only good for fish food. 
    • Fact: Simply false. 
  • Myth: It is too costly to use algae for production. 
    • Fact: Algae are much better as a chassis for certain compounds like oils.
  • Myth: Algae don’t grow fast. 
    • Fact: Some algae can double in size every two hours.


What’s next in the world of algae for food/medicine that excites you? 

Oils from algae can still be grown into a business, although there are probably a lot of patents around some of this. But the algae appear to be the best chassis to generate high oil levels and some, like some of the Chlorella strains, grow pretty fast. The polysaccharides can also be valuable because they can be functionalized and polymerized. 

Why is it an important ecosystem to consider in the role of food as medicine?

In a sense, food is medicinal. Combinations of food contain the compounds/metabolites we need to grow, develop and be active. Some foods may also be higher in certain compounds that are antibacterial, antiviral (some of the algal sulfated polysaccharides might be in this category). Many plants and algae also contain specific medicinals. It’s a very interesting area of developments and studies overall. 

You bring such specific and relevant expertise to GEM. Can you share more about why you were excited to join our scientific advisory board?

I have always felt that algae should be used more and more in food production because they provide high nutritive value, whether talking about vitamins, long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (DHA, EPA) and numerous other oils, antioxidants (carotenoids/tocopherols) and polysaccharides. Many of these products can come through eating unprocessed/lightly processed algal materials in salads or even in baked goods. Some of the algal oils can substitute for fats in many foods (including ice cream and condiments) and the number of polysaccharides (often heavily sulfated) made is stunning and has only been explored minimally (e.g. in the beauty industry, as thickeners in foods, as agar and agarose). The general orientation of GEM to focus on generating food products from algae that will provide nourishment from various components and qualities of the algae, including vitamins, compounds with antioxidant activities and compounds that would potentially contribute to overall health and provide a natural alternative to commercialized and highly processed products is intriguing to me. 

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