What Human Maladies Can Algae-based Starship Medicines Address?

by Dr. Mark Edwards

Editor’s note: DARPA and NASA selected Mark Edwards to develop the medical plan for the 100-year Starship Symposium, held in Atlanta, GA over the past year. His plan, which is titled: “Sustainable Vitality, Sex, and Medicines, for Extended Space Exploration,” is intended to imagine the possibilities beyond today’s realities for making long-distance space travel practicable and feasible in the not so distant future. This is the final of several posts on how sustainable algae-based medicines might be derived for and from the 100-year Starship project.

Starship foods and functional foods derived from algae incorporate the essential nutrients necessary to support sustained health and vitality. A set of smart microfarms can produce extremely pure medical products that remediate most the medical issues. Peer-reviewed medical research is available on algae-based medicines, vaccines, and therapeutics for each of the following human conditions.

Medical issues addressed with Algae-based Medicines

The Polydome, developed by Except in the Netherlands, maximizes food production in each square meter. Smart microfarms can produce algae-based medicines in this controlled environment.

Deficiency diseases

The starship will avoid the Big Five most prevalent public health diseases by integrating algae nutrients into starship foods. The major diseases globally, according to the U.N. Food and Health Organization include the following.

Malnutrition affects 4 billion people globally and occurs from insufficient usable protein or deficiencies in specific essential nutrients. Algae can provide a reliable protein source and all the essential nutrients. Algae are not a full solution for malnutrition because most algae are low in fat. However, foods high in fat calories are cheap and easy to grow.


Nutritional anemia, (iron and B12 deficiency), occurs from insufficient iron in the diet. Iron deficiency currently diminishes the health of 3.5 billion people globally. Anemia is the most common blood disorder and causes a decrease in the normal number of red blood cells or less than the normal quantity of hemoglobin in the blood. Iron and B vitamins are essential for strong red blood cells and a healthy immune system. Since human cells depend on oxygen for survival, varying degrees of anemia can have severe medical consequences. Anemia causes weakness, fatigue, general malaise, and brain dysfunction. Anemic children have trouble concentrating and learning. Severe anemia can cause loss of breath, mental confusion, and cardiac arrest.

Algae provide a reliable source of bioavailable iron and buffer against anemia. The introduction of algae in a low iron meal increases iron absorption 3-6 fold. The B vitamin deficiency (B9, aka folic acid, and/or B12) is the leading cause of macrocytic anemia worldwide. Macrocytic anemia impairs female reproductive function and embryo/fetal viability. Folic acid concentrations in algae are comparable to many common fruits and vegetables (~20 ug). Algae hold a unique place in the plant world as an adequate and reliable source of B12, which is critical for vegetarians. Xerophthalmia, (vitamin A deficiency), Good vision requires substantial amounts of vitamin A.

Unfortunately, nearly half the children in the world today are vitamin A deficient. The most common cause of blindness in developing countries today occurs from vitamin A deficiency. The WHO estimates 13.8 million children to have some degree of visual loss related to vitamin A deficiency. Approximately 500,000 children in the developing world go blind each year from insufficient vitamin A. Approximately half of those children die within a year of becoming blind. Night and color blindness are markers of vitamin A deficiency, which can also lead to impaired immune function, cancer, birth defects, and maternal mortality.

Algae contains more Vitamin A per once than Carrots

The human eye’s retina needs vitamin A in the form of a specific metabolite, the light-absorbing molecule rhodopsin. This molecule plays a critical role in both night vision and cornea health. Vitamin A also plays an important role in other human systems including gene transcription, cardiac function, bone metabolism, hematopoiesis, skin health and antioxidant activity. In pregnant women, vitamin A deficiency may disrupt embryonic development. Due to its critical role in innate immunity, the body’s first line of defense against invading pathogens, vitamin A, the ‘c’ vitamin, has reduced morbidity and mortality throughout human history.

Land plants and roots contain little pre-formed vitamin A so consumers in most societies meet their requirement through the conversion of ingested beta-carotene to retinol. The bioconversion of beta-carotene to retinol is highly variable based on the plant’s food matrix. Foods with complex matrices (fruits and vegetables including spinach and carrots) have poor conversion rates (15:1 to 27:1) compared to foods with simple food matrices. Algae offer the highest conversion rate for all foods (4.5:1), due to its simple cell structure. Numerous algae varieties provide ten times the beta-carotene, (a provitamin A carotenoid) per pound than modern carrots.

Hypozincemia, zinc deficiency, often accompanies vitamin A deficiency and amplifies the adverse health impacts. Algae-based foods will provide sufficient daily vitamin A and zinc for crewmembers.

Endemic goiter, (iodine deficiency) affects 2 billion people who have insufficient iodine intake, making iodine deficiency the single largest preventable cause of mental retardation. Moderate iodine deficiency, especially in pregnant women and infants, lowers intelligence by 10 to 15 I.Q. points. The most visible and severe effects include disabling goiters, cretinism and dwarfism. About 16% of the world’s people today have at least mild goiter, a swollen thyroid gland in the neck.  The high iodine content in algae contributes to the low rates of goiter observed in countries where people frequently eat algae.

Algae provides sufficient dietary Iodine

It may seem improbable that a tiny algae supplement can provide sufficient iodine, iron, zinc and other nutrients, even when the local diet does not. Typically, these critical trace elements exist in the local water but in extremely weak dilution.

People, especially children, are unable to drink enough water to acquire sufficient iodine or other elements. In many cases, little fresh water is available for drinking. The starship will have plenty of fresh water because algae will remediate wastewater while regenerating clean air with fresh oxygen.

Algae’s secret to high nutralence stems from its ability to bioaccumulate nutrients in water at 1,000 ambient levels. This ability relates in part to the high surface area to volume ratio, rapid growth rates, and ability to rapidly assimilate and store nutrients in their large vacuoles. This means that even when some nutrients, minerals, or vitamins may be lacking in human diets, algae can concentrate those nutrients in its biomass.

Immunity and wellness. Humans have rubbed algae or algae oil on their skin for sun protection, to add moisture, and to speed recovery from wounds, burns, and bruises for centuries. Algae’s high antioxidant activity protects the skin from inflammatory reactions and sun damage.

Algae components also activate the cellular immune system including T-cells, macrophages, B-cells and anti-cancer natural killer cells. Algae polysaccharides inhibit replication of several enveloped viruses including herpes simplex, influenza, measles, mumps, human cytomegalovirus, and HIV-1. Pacific Rim societies have been using algae for these and other natural remedies for centuries because they are effective. Organic chemists, medicinal chemists, biologists, and pharmacists are currently developing effective anti-inflammatory medicines from algae.

Starship medicines produced from algae using recycled starship waste streams can sustain the health of crewmembers and their animals. Algae-based medicines will soon be available to earth-bound consumers because these medicines offer substantial advantages for health and the cost of medications. Algae nutraceuticals will be available in functional foods that eliminate the need for most health supplements.