Meet Mr. Algae

How algae can revolutionize the world in food, water, energy, healthcare and, oh yeah, surfing.

When the White House called Stephen Mayfield and said, “We hear you’re Mr. Algae,” he went with it.

It’s a fitting name for the biology professor and director of the California Center for Algae Biotechnology (Cal-CAB) at UC San Diego. Mayfield has studied algae for over three decades, manipulating the single-celled plant’s genes to make forms of gasoline, innovations in food science (what D.C. was calling about), and vaccines for endemic diseases—not bad for your average pond scum.

But his most widely publicized achievement came in April, when he formed a team with two chemistry faculty members, a surfboard manufacturer and a private biotechnology company. The product? The world’s first algae-based surfboard.

092015_MrAlgae_boardALike many environmentally conscious surfers, Mayfield was bothered by the contradiction in surf equipment. “In surfing more than any other sport,” he says, “you are totally connected and immersed in the ocean environment. And yet your connection to that environment is through a piece of plastic made from fossil fuels.”

Leave it to Mr. Algae to find a solution. If algae oil could replace the fuel in our gas tanks, he wondered, couldn’t it also replace the petroleum-based core of our surfboards?

With this in mind, he engaged his biology students and those from the labs of Michael Burkart, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry, and Robert “Skip” Pomeroy, a chemistry professor who helps students recycle waste cooking oil into biodiesel that powers the green UC San Diego buses. Together, the team determined how to chemically modify the oil obtained from laboratory algae to make different kinds of “polyol” suitable to become a surfboard’s core. Collaborations with the biotech and surfing industries led to the final product.

The algae surfboard not only represents the hallmark collaborative spirit of UC San Diego, but the fusion of biotechnology, surfing and environmentally conscious thinking that makes our campus a desirable place to work, live and study for scholars and innovators who cherish the coastal environment.


Algae: What’s Now

Dietary Supplements Algae, such as the protein-rich, blue-green strain known as spirulina, has long been a dietary supplement for humans and animals. But Mayfield has studied other nutritional benefits in his research, such as algae’s high protein content and balanced amino acid concentration.

Biofuels When stressed, algae produce oil that is very similar to petroleum. Mayfield and colleagues are genetically engineering different algae to grow rapidly in large quantities, making biofuels a cost-effective alternative.

And What’s Next

Therapeutic Proteins Mayfield and his colleagues are exploring algae’s potential to produce therapeutic drugs, such as vascular endothelial growth factor, used to treat emphysema.

Vaccine Development Mayfield is working with a team led by Joseph Vinetz, Ph.D. ’91, at the School of Medicine to engineer algae that yields an inexpensive malaria vaccine. “The only way a malaria vaccine will ever be used in the developing world is if it can be produced at a fraction of the cost of current vaccines,” he says. “Algae have this potential because you can grow algae any place on the planet, in ponds or even bathtubs.”


A Board Born of Triton

092015_MrAlgae_labFive ways the algae surfboard evokes the essence of UC San Diego

  1. Sustainability The first surfboards were shaped from Hawaiian koa wood, while modern surfboards are made from foam, fiberglass and resin. Algae brings surfing back to its sustainable roots.
  2. Interdisciplinary Collaboration UC San Diego biologists and chemists worked together to create algae-based polyol, which, mixed with a catalyst and silicates, expands into the foam-like substance at the surfboard’s core.
  3. Industry Partnerships Mayfield called on Solazyme, Inc. to supply enough algae oil to make the surfboard. Arctic Foam, the largest surfboard blank maker in North America, successfully produced the first algae surfboard core.
  4. Global Reach The first board was presented to San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer at the premiere of National Geographic’s “World’s Smart Cities: San Diego,” featuring UC San Diego’s algae biofuels research. The board then made a global tour to D.C., London and Tokyo.
  5. Leading Innovation The cores of algae surfboards could be chemically “tuned” to adjust flexibility to different surfing styles. The plan is to test more boards with professional surfers and spawn a new industry of custom surfboards.