From the lab book of nature
The Adlershof start-up Alganize uses microalgae against soil erosion
“In 2018, I was part of a project in India. That’s where I realised the true extent of soil erosion,” says Nils Brüggemann. “The livelihoods of many farmers had been destroyed, and the suicide rate among those affected skyrocketed.” This had a lasting effect on the young agronomist. “It was then that I decided to focus on soil regeneration and to explore ways for reversing the effects of soil erosion.” Together with his co-founder Omar Khalaf, he discovered microalgae. The idea of Alganize was born.
“The essential functions of soil are taken over by microorganisms. And these can see a sharp decline due to human activity,” Khalaf explains and cites an example: “If farmers use chemical fertiliser, they alter the pH of the soil. Many bacteria do not thrive under these new conditions, cannot fulfil their functions, or simply die off.” This is where biotechnology comes into play. “We asked ourselves what we can do to bring the tiny soil workers back to peak performance.” The answer to this question is what the founders called “Alganize”. It is the name of both their business and their product. The business is based at the start-up incubator of Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, where, over the past few years, the product was developed and tested both on a laboratory scale as well as in field trials.
It arrives at the farms in liquid form and in large containers. Mixed with water and manure, it is spread all over the fields, improving the quality of the soil, and putting an end to soil erosion. Khalaf lets us in on the ingredients of the suspension: “The chlorella alga produces valuable metabolic products for its own growth and to form symbioses with other microorganisms. These include vitamins, phytohormones, amino acids and reduced sugars.”
Spread out in the fields, they act as fodder for the microorganisms. Their community, in turn, is essential to healthy plant growth. They bind nitrogen from the air, for example, which plants need to grow. And they dissolve minerals such as phosphorus and potassium from rock and make them available to plants. “The living microalgae still floating in our suspension also help the soil,” adds Brüggemann. “This is because they act like small sponges and thus increase the water storage capacity in the soil. In addition, due to their gelatinous consistency, they can glue sand particles together. This creates cavities in the soil, which are important for several both physical and biochemical processes.”
Brüggemann and Khalaf have already demonstrated that their concept is promising. Thanks to Berliner Startup-Stipendium, a start-up grant, they have been able to vigorously push research and development forward since May 2022. Now, they took the logical next step and founded a business. “One of our most important tasks of the months to come is to work closely with and support our ‘first movers’,” says Brüggemann. They will now collect data in the field together with those farmers who are already using Alganize. This is necessary to strengthen the scientific foundation of their regenerative methods. “We must prove that the results from the lab and greenhouses can be transferred to large areas,” Khalaf adds. He is glad that he can now make a very personal goal a reality. “I always sought to learn from nature and use it as a model for us humans,” he says. “Evolution, to me, is the greatest researcher of all and the DNA is its lab book. It stores all the data we have and improves it from year to year.”
Kai Dürfeld, Adlershof Journal