Dartmouth biotech firm Mara Renewables develops fish oil without the fish

By Maan Alhmidi

Fish oil is important to health but it’s unsustainable due to declining marine life.

Dartmouth scientists have found an alternative product and is making it profitable.

“We went to the ocean, to the Bay of Fundy, and we found a micro-organism that can actually make oil. It’s a micro-algae,” said Roberto Armenta, the chief scientist of Mara Renewables Corp.

“You need a microscope to see it,” he said.

The sustainable oil is, like fish oil, a very rich source of omega-3 fatty acids, which are important to human health. “It’s good for brain health, for cardiovascular health,” said Armenta.

Understanding the food chain made Armenta and his colleagues able to identify the micro-organisms that fish convert to the nutritional oil. They also learned that fish oil is an accumulation of multiple oils that come together as bigger species consume the smaller ones.

Because of climate change and overfishing, the amount of wild fish available in the ocean is less year after year, said Armenta. “There is no more fish in the ocean to really fish.”

“We are not compromising wild fish. We’re making (the oil) in a controlled environment — in a six-storey high tank,” said Armenta. The process is similar to brewing beer and the tanks are like giant beer tanks.

“Instead of making beer, you’re making oil in a sustainable way,” he said.

Armenta came from Mexico to Dalhousie University as a biochemistry PhD student 17 years ago. He is married to a Vancouver woman he met in Halifax. They have three kids.

“We call this beautiful place home,” he said.

“I have been working in all sorts of product that can be made with micro-organisms,” Armenta said.

The idea of making fish oil from micro-organisms came to Armenta 10 years ago. He used to work in Ocean Nutrition, a company located in Dartmouth that imports fish oil from South America and processes it before selling it.

“We were only (a few) scientists working in micro-organism to make a similar product,” said Armenta.

Armenta and his team found the algae strain and domesticated it. Later, they forced fast changes in the lab, which caused artificial evolution to make it produce more oil. The goal was to be able to brew large quantities that make sense economically.

The micro-organism grows up in days and oil represents over 60 per cent of its weight. The product is a nutritional oil that mimics fish oil.

“You can use it in supplements, in infant formula, and any other potential application,” said Armenta. It’s usable “in feeding fish as well.”

The first commercial product came into existence around two years ago. Algae DHA oil is being sold to food production businesses in Europe, the United States and Canada.

The way to make the product available in market was long not only because developing the technology was difficult but also because Mara Renewables needed the regulatory permits to be able to sell the product for human consumption in Europe and North America.

“We needed to get the required regulatory approvals,” said Armenta. “You have to prove it’s safe especially (since) it’s going to (human consumption).”

Intellectual property is also important in this field. “Due to competition, you have to develop a really (good) IP portfolio, which we did,” Armenta said.

The company has its research and development labs in Dartmouth, but Mara Renewables’ first manufacturing facility is located in Liverpool, England.

“We need to keep improving the technology in order to be competitive,” said Armenta. The company has a pilot plant testing facility in Nova Scotia as well, that the company uses to make sure that the technologies work on the commercial level before sending it to its facility in Liverpool.

The company has 24 scientists at its Dartmouth labs and around 70 employees in total.

“The reason we went to Europe was because the market there was really ready for this,” said Armenta. “Our technology produces non-genetically modified micro-organism, and in Europe that is very important.”

“In Nova Scotia, we have been looking at using woody biomass. Pulp and paper (industry) has been in trouble for the last years because there is no market for paper. The micro-organism that we have can take that and turn it to oil,” said Armenta.

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