A European Union (EU) research project has highlighted the potential for marine microbes to be used as bio replacements for surfactants and emulsifiers.

The aim of the five-year project by Marisurf, an international consortium led by a team at Heriot-Watt University and funded by Horizon-2020, was to find renewable and less toxic compounds for use in consumer and industrial applications.

On its website, Marisurf said that “enormous volumes” of surfactants and emulsifiers were used in a wide range of industrial applications but most of them were synthetically manufactured using petrochemicals, which were non-renewable and had a “potentially toxic effect” on humans and the environment.

From 500 initial marine microbe strains, two strains - had shown good results at pilot scale, the report published on 20 April said.

Originally due for completion by the end of December 2020, the project had been extended until the end of February due to COVID working restrictions. This had allowed the three Marisurf end-users – Nanoimmunotech, Marlow Foods and APIVITA – to do further testing on the most promising strain (partially replacing some of the surfactants /emulsifiers they currently use with the Marisurf alternative).

In the initial stages of the project, an unexpected issue had been the appearance of bacterial endotoxin during the large-scale fermentation processing work, the report said.

Extensive work was undertaken in the project’s final stage to try to remove the endotoxin and to understand if it was contributing to the end product’s functionality.

The results suggested that the active component of the Marisurf strain had a distinct composition and functional activity from the endotoxin fraction.

The endotoxin presence was worthy of further investigation as it would be an issue with all novel bio-emulsifiers produced by Gram-negative bacteria and would hold back the application of these molecules in consumer products, the report said.

Surfactants and emulsifiers have a total global production estimate of over 13M tonnes/year, according to Marisurf.