24 October 2023

Microalgae could become your climate-friendly favorite dish


Ph.D. student at UCPH FOOD, Malene Fog Lihme Olsen, is working on the research project MASSPROVIT to refine the microalgae "Nannochloropsis oceanica". This includes creating a vast library of how different mutants of the microalgae perform in terms of growth rate and color. The goal is to establish the foundation for a sustainable production of edible microalgae that taste good.

Portrætfoto af Malene Fog Lihme Olsen
Ph.D. student at UCPH FOOD, Malene Fog Lihme Olsen. Picture: Lene H. Koss

This article is part of a series on the research conducted by Ph.D. students at the Department of Food Science at the University of Copenhagen, UCPH FOOD. The research contributes to expanding our understanding of food and supports the food system in delivering healthy, delicious, and sustainable food to consumers.

What is MASSPROVIT all about?

The project is based on the marine microalgae "Nannochloropsis oceanica," which DTU has shown can synthesize vitamin D3, which is often deficient in humans globally. In addition, the algae contain large amounts of polyunsaturated fatty acids and protein. All these components are essential for our health, but they can be challenging to obtain in sufficient quantities on a plant-based diet.

In MASSPROVIT, we work to refine the algae so that it can be used as a food ingredient in an industrial context. This includes the following:

  • We aim to refine it to achieve higher yields and growth rates, reduce the green color to make the taste less bitter, and make the algal biomass more usable as a food ingredient.
  • We also focus on improving the digestibility of the algae. Microalgae have a complex and tough cell wall, making them initially challenging to digest. We address this challenge in several ways: 
    • We try to refine the algae to have a softer cell wall. The refinement method used in the project is classical "random mutagenesis," well-known from plant breeding, and does not involve genetic modification.
    • We also explore downstream processing, including mechanical and enzymatic treatment, as well as the fermentation of algae, which may both preserve the harvested algal biomass and enhance digestibility. It might also improve the taste.
  • Finally, we work on adapting the algae to be grown from excess nutrients in process water from the food industry.



What does your part of the project entail?

My part of the project primarily involves refining the algae, where we have UV-irradiated the wild type and created a mutant library with over 280 strains that are screened for growth rate and color. I am also investigating whether the mutations are stable. There are also several points where I collaborate with another Ph.D. student at DTU, so we are in constant contact with each other. It's nice to have another student in the project to discuss things with.

What inspired you to enter this research field?

I have always been interested in microbiology and have also worked on protein purification, where I first started working with microalgae about 15 years ago, which I quickly grew very fond of.

How might your research potentially impact the food industry or consumer habits?

The hope is that we can contribute a microalgae that is tailored for food use in terms of production, appearance, taste, and digestibility, all with a smaller carbon footprint than animal products of the same nutritional quality.


Does your research include studies of food culture? If so, what insights or cultural discoveries have you made in connection with your research?

As a Ph.D. student, you have to take various courses, and because I'm interested in bridging research, industry, and consumers, I chose to take the course "Sensory evaluation and food preferences" at UCPH FOOD last spring. Here, you learn about how consumers relate to food; what they like and don't like and how this is handled in research. It was an exciting experience that gave me insight into a completely different kind of research than I'm familiar with, but one that is just as important to understand if microalgae are to become a common food that consumers want to eat.

How does your research contribute to a more environmentally friendly food production or consumption?

There is a strong focus on sustainability in microalgae research in general, and the MASSPROVIT project is no exception. It's the high growth rates, valuable content, efficient nutrient utilization, and minimal land usage that give microalgae a unique potential as a future sustainable food source. However, a lot of work needs to be done to realize this potential, and as mentioned, in MASSPROVIT, we address genetics, cultivation, and processing of algae to reduce the economic and environmental costs of future industrial production.

Where are you in the process right now, and how is it progressing?

I am halfway through my Ph.D. now, and in the MASSPROVIT project, we have refined and selected particularly interesting mutants, which DTU has received and is about to cultivate on a larger scale to confirm our results and determine the composition of the algal biomass. At the University of Copenhagen, I am about to start characterizing the refined algae strains genetically – how are they different from the wild type? And how is the photosynthetic apparatus affected? This part of the work will be carried out in collaboration with a research group in Padova, which has extensive experience in that area. Over the coming year, I will visit the Italian university as part of my Ph.D.

What does a typical day look like for you?

I may be a somewhat unusual Ph.D. student, as I am 45 years old and had worked as an algae biologist for many years before deciding to continue my education. I don't see the age difference between me and the other Ph.D. students as a problem; I feel very welcome, and we enjoy each other's company and benefit from it both socially and academically.

I live in Vordingborg – about 100 km from the University of Copenhagen. The long distance significantly shapes my daily life, as the commute takes almost two hours each way. Therefore, I try to consolidate my desk work into one day of remote work per week, and I also work on the train, where, as DSB says, "the time is my own."

What do you hope will come out of your work?

New knowledge that can contribute to microalgae becoming a widespread, sustainable quality food, even in Denmark.


PhD fellow at the Department of Food Science at the University of Copenhagen (UCPH FOOD), Malene Fog Lihme Olsen, malene.fog@food.ku.dk


Communications officer at UCPH FOOD Lene Hundborg Koss, lene.h.koss@food.ku.dk


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