Red algae (Gracilaria chilensis) are used to make agar-agar — a jelly-like substance used in a plethora of products, including ice cream, dietary supplements and cosmetics. Once the seeds grow into tangles of red algae, the plants are harvested and processed to make agar-agar. This versatile substance acts as a gelatin substitute and is used in textile dyes, plastics and cosmetics. Another important application is microbiological culture media.
Chile is one of the world’s largest producers of the algae. Chile exports 1,800 tons a year, and along with Spain and Japan, is one of the world’s top producers, who together account for 60 percent of agar-agar output, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization.
However, demand for Chile’s algae and pressure on the ecosystem have grown so great that now the algae are under threat. Last year, a study by the biology department at Catholic University of Chile with French research institute CNRS warned Chile’s red algae were in danger of extinction.
Over-exploitation is not the only thing threatening the seaweed: A worm that feeds on the algae has also hit the region. Waste from nearby salmon farms is likewise threatening the plants.
Posted by Dr. Tim Sandle