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Scientists at Newcastle University have found a way to accelerate the production of phycocyanin – a natural blue food coloring - by exposing algae to a very narrow wavelength of light.

Working with Scottish Bioenergy, the team found that by limiting all other wavelengths, the algae – known more commonly as Spirulina – will start to mass-produce the blue pigment when exposed to long wavelength red light.

Scottish Bioenergy is now using the technology to produce ‘blue’ on an industrial scale as demand for the natural colourant continues to rise, not just in food but also for pharmaceuticals and cosmetics.

And Stu Brew - Newcastle University’s student-run, sustainable micro-brewery – has created a limited edition St Patrick’s Day green pint by mixing the blue phycocyanin with their yellow-colored pale ale to promote the research.

Responding to demand

“Normally the algae would use other parts of the light spectrum so by exposing it to just this very narrow band leaves it with two choices – either it dies or it makes more of the phycocyanin-producing proteins to survive,” explained Gary Caldwell, senior lecturer in Applied Marine Biology at Newcastle University.

“Demand for phycocyanin has increased massively because people want natural not artificial food colorants, but at the moment it’s still very expensive to produce," added Chelsea Brain, who carried out the research as part of her EngD, a joint project with Newcastle University and Scottish Bioenergy. “We found that we could produce over five-times the amount of ‘blue’ using long wavelength red light, reducing the cost of production and also improving efficiency.”

Blue is good for you

Unlike its artificial equivalent, Phycocyanin is a powerful anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory and demand for the natural blue pigment has grown exponentially in recent years.

“Phycocyanin is already used as an anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory and the use of Phycocyanin as a natural blue food colorant has experienced exponential growth in the past five years after being approved by the FDA as a food colorant in 2013," explained DC Van Alstyne, Scottish Bioenergy's CEO.

“But demand has now outstripped supply. This project with Newcastle University and Stu Brew feels like a homecoming.  As we scale and Internationalize it's lovely to be involved in a project that brings us back to Newcastle; the roots of our company are fed by the Tyne.”

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