By Dr. Dan Miller
Astaxanthin in nature
Astaxanthin is a red pigment of the carotenoid family and an extremely strong natural antioxidant with positive effects on human health. Even though it plays different physiological roles in various animals including krill, lobster, and some fish (the most known example being the Salmon fish), none of these organisms is able to synthesize this substance which must be obtained from external sources.
Only one plant in nature can produce small amounts of astaxanthin in its petals - the plant Adonis annua. But the natural production of astaxanthin in a significant and effective way can be done only by microorganisms – most known examples being red yeast and microalgae.
Who is this microalga?
The green microalgae Haematococcus pluvialis is the richest known source of natural astaxanthin. Under appropriate conditions, the pigment accumulates in its cells to make up to 5% of H. pluvialis biomass. The biosynthesis of astaxanthin is a complex process that involves many enzymes and requires an investment of energy. What are the advantages that astaxanthin confer to H. pluvialis which make it worth expending resources on its production?
H. pluvialis is primarily found in temporary freshwater bodies such as rain pools and natural or artificial ponds. These habitats are instable as they lack constant inputs of water and regularly experience evaporation, which in turn leads to increased salinity, high temperatures, drought and shortage in nutrients (nutrients shortage is a result of consumption without external resources that can renew the nutrients pool in the pond).
All these stressors challenge the cells that developed a robust survival strategy in the form of astaxanthin.
The key to understanding this strategy lies in the understanding of stress on the cellular level: cellular stress ultimately results in the formation of free radical and in the establishment of a physiological condition known as oxidative stress. In photosynthetic organisms (e.g. all algae), there is a delicate balance between the amount of energy that enters the cells (in the form of light) and the energy used to fixate carbon into biomass which eventually makes up all the structures in the cell. Oxidative stress emerges when this balance is disrupted. This might be a result of strong irradiance (which may occur when the protection offered the particles floating within the pools disappear because of evaporation).
Alternatively, the balance is disrupted by the allocation of energy normally used for the fixation of carbon to processes that maintain homeostasis (keep the physiology of the cell within certain limits of temperature, salinity, oxygen concentrations, etc.). Thus, whenever the cells are challenged with high salinity (which may result from evaporation), nutrient shortage, high irradiance and other stressors they must survive the massive formation of free radicals within them. The accumulation of astaxanthin within the cells is thought to confer the required protection from these harmful molecules.
The magic that occurs in nature
In nature, astaxanthin is transferred from microalgae to higher organisms, starting with tiny krill and up the food web to large fish. These organisms are able to absorb astaxanthin from their food and make use of this pigment for their own benefit.
A famous example is the one of salmon fish: the color of salmon meat is red due to the presence of astaxanthin in its muscles. As they reach sexual maturity, salmons swim upstream to freshwater springs where they mate and lay eggs, a process that requires enormous power and extraordinary muscle performance. Astaxanthin makes this possible: it protects the mitochondria – the sub-cellular organelle responsible for energy providence through cellular respiration – from oxidative damage and helps it shift from using sugar to fatty acids for the production of energy (fatty acids are far more efficient as fuel). These unique properties of astaxanthin grant salmon fish the power to perform the incredible journey up the streams of rivers all the way to the calm waters of their origins, where they give rise to the next generation of salmon fish.
The energy and power that salmon get from astaxanthin - our bodies can get too!
Through the daily intake of 4 mg astaxanthin, we can help the body's mechanisms work more properly, strengthen the immune systems and give the body the energy it needs.
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