Seaweed wonders medicine, makeup and more to discover

Seaweed wonders medicine, makeup and more to discover
Farmers harvest seaweed on Nusa Penida Island. Seaweed is useful for food, medicine and cosmetics.

Imagine a natural resource with proven health benefits, both inside and outside the body. It grows abundantly in the wild. It's easily cultivated - though little understood.

Consider a commonplace raw material with great potential where Indonesia leads the world in exports - yet lags in knowledge.

Turning around this situation is the goal of Noer Khasanah and her colleagues in the Fisheries Department at Yogyakarta's Gadjah Mada University (UGM).

With the help of a New Zealand aid programme, they're working to reveal the hidden curative powers and other qualities of seaweed.

"About 780 varieties have been identified though there could be more," said Noer, who originally trained as a pharmacist. "However, only 56 are known to be commercially viable."

She said the reeds - at least 450 types, which grow furthest from the shores are the most economically important.

"But until our research is complete we won't know if there are others that could yield valuable compounds," she says.

Indonesia, she says, is a mega-diverse country with huge potential.

"Who knows what we can find and the applications waiting to be uncovered?" Noer said.

"Most discoveries of the properties of seaweed have come from overseas. I'm not happy about that, particularly as we are such a major producer."

Seaweed derivatives are already used in slimming pills - they work by tricking the body into thinking the stomach is full - and wound dressings.

They're the source of iodine, which is found in a wide range of medicines and is vital for the proper functioning of the thyroid gland.

The applications do not stop with drugs. Seaweed is part of the diet in many cultures. It is also used in cosmetics and fertilizers.

However the major commercial application is in medicine - including anti-bacterial compounds - and food additives. The extract agar is a staple: If you ate jelly, sampled sushi or drank a soup today, the chances are that your snack included elements of seaweed.

Seaweed is already a useful earner. Four years ago, just three million tonnes were exported; this year the prediction is 10 million, making Indonesia the world's top producer. Most of it goes to Europe.

If the quality is improved and further processing is undertaken then incomes could be even higher and jobs kept in the republic.

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