From the Darkside

It’s the Slime: Maryland’s Food Pioneer, Dr. Robert Krauss

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Dr. Robert Krauss illuminated by his algae experiments in 1954. “University of Maryland Algae Experiment,” Bodine, B326-B, MdHS

Though at first glance this post seems anticipatory of Halloween, it is actually topical for an altogether different reason—October is Vegetarian Awareness Month. I am not a vegetarian myself, but my colleague and fellow underbellian Joe Tropea is. So after subjecting him to watching me inhale many a lunch of Maryland Crab at Soups On, or tasty sausage at Jack and Zach’s, I figured I’d do my part and spread a little awareness—this one’s for you pal.

At the University of Maryland in 1949 Dr. Robert Krauss puzzled over a problem that is more relevant today than ever before: How do we feed the growing population of our planet? To oversimplify things a bit…as Earth’s population grows there is an increasing demand  for energy.  This demand is also compounded by more and more of the world’s population striving for and sometimes reaching a middle-class lifestyle. The economics of the situation result in the production of cheap and dirty energy, like coal which emits high levels of heat trapping CO2. The earth heats, water slowly rises, and land becomes ever more precious. Many people love a good hamburger, but honestly, when you consider the effects of deforestation – caused by clear cutting to make room for ranches, not to mention species extinction and the intrinsic loss of precious unstudied genetic material – with the amount of energy and space that goes into producing the corn that fattens up the beef, it can make even the drooliest Hamburglar feel a twinge of guilt. But let’s get back to Dr. Krauss…

In 1949 Dr. Krauss began setting up a laboratory that would experiment with a method to efficiently alleviate human hunger—harvesting algae for food. Because algae can be found in all of Earth’s biomes – from ice-capped mountaintops to the arid deserts – capitalizing on its abundance and resilience is quite logical. If the right species was cultivated and the proper traits selected for it in a lab, Krauss determined that he could produce vegetable mass with nearly as much protein as beefsteak. Extrapolating even further, he projected that an area twice the size of Rhode Island covered in this algae, could produce enough food mass for the entire human race. Algae’s quick rate of reproduction and its ability to be easily harvested, combined with a specific chemical diet and the light of a controlled laboratory environment, would turn pond scum into the food of the future.

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A clipping featuring Robert Krauss and William D. McElroy from the Baltimore Evening Sun. September 5, 1967. Taken from the Dielman-Hayward file at MdHS.

Though this probably does not sound immediately appetizing,  algae is very healthy and relatively bland. A little cross selecting here, and hybridization there, and maybe it could start to taste  like chicken. And if not, I guess that’s what Sriracha sauce is for…

Krauss’ later work in 1960 at the University of Maryland explored an even more interesting application of harvested algae—doubling as a constant oxygen source and food supply for space travelers. In the early years of space exploration, as humans were dreaming of travelling deep into the solar system, the weight of supplies on space vessels posed a puzzling conundrum. Some kind of algae permaculture system integrated into the space ships design could save space, cut down on weight, and more importantly continually sustain itself, and by extension the astronauts aboard.

The time may be ripe for Dr. Krauss’ ideas. After doing a quick Google search it seems that efforts are under way. In Japan scientists are working on an algae helmet which thrives on CO2. Though fashion may not have caught up to it yet, it is hard to argue with clothing that makes a meal for you. Maybe autotrophic humans of the future won’t be so different from plants? In 20 years, as you’re jogging down the street, producing your own source of energy in your algae suit, remember Maryland’s very own Dr. Robert Krauss- a pioneer of food of the future.

Dr. Krauss at work in his laboratory at the University of Maryland. BCLM, Bodine, B326-C, MdHS

A scientist at work inthe algae laboratory at the University of Maryland. BCLM, Bodine, B326-C, MdHS

The photos in this post of Dr. Krauss were taken by famed Baltimore photographer A. Aubrey Bodine. They represent a small sliver in his vast body of work, capturing every aspect of Maryland life and culture.  You can also see some of his photographs on exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Industry until February 6, 2014. Many of his negatives can be viewed in the H. Furlong Baldwin Library here at the Maryland Historical Society.

The Dielman-Hayward file in action at MdHS.

The Dielman-Hayward file in action at MdHS.

Also come check out the Dielman-Hayward file which contains dozens of linear feet of clippings about Dr. Krauss and other forgotten Marylanders. We invite you to pay us a visit between 10-5 pm, Wednesday through Friday. If you have more information on Dr. Krauss drop us an email -specialcollections@mdhs.org

(Eben Dennis)

Further Reading and Research

University of Maryland College Park, College of Agriculture, Series 1 Administrative Files, Correspondence — Krauss, Robert W., 1954-1965

“V. Of M. Gets Grant To Speed Space-Travel Food Studies.” Baltimore Sun, April 27, 1960.

Reppert, Ralph.”A Mess Of Greens: That May One Day Be a Dish of the Algae a U. of M. Man Is Now Experimenting with.” Baltimore Sun, May 9, 1954.

“Two Maryland Scientists Get Top Posts in Biology Group.” Baltimore Evening Sun. September 5, 1967.