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Artificial seeding

revolutionising the Japanese seaweed industry North West,

A woman stands on front of a bamboo wall. Squares of flattened seaweed are propped against it.
Drying seaweed in Japan, 1910, before artificial seeding was developed. Science Museum/ Science and Society Picture Library

Kathleen Drew-Baker (1901-57), a biologist at the University of Manchester, pioneered artificial seeding techniques. These techniques revolutionised the cultivation of seaweed in Japan.

In Japan Porphyra yezoensis (known as nori) had been a food source for over 2000 years and was probably the first seaweed in cultivation. Before Drew-Baker’s work, nori cultivation depended on the seaweed being naturally seeded. Poor harvests in the late 1940s and a typhoon in 1951 led to the collapse of the nori industry.

Drew-Baker spent years investigating this variety of seaweed, and discovered that an alga, Conchocelis rosea, was actually a stage in its life history. What had previously been thought of as two different types of seaweed were in fact the same one, at different stages of growth.

Her subsequent publication in the journal Nature - ‘Conchocelis-phase in the life history of Porphyra umbilicalis’ - represented a significant discovery. Drew-Baker had revealed the full life cycle of this seaweed, allowing researchers to seed nori by artificial means. In Japan this made large-scale cultivation and harvesting possible, and the modern nori industry was born.

The Japanese set up a memorial to the ‘Mother of the Sea’ near Uto and every year there is a ceremony in honour of Drew-Baker’s discovery.

Manchester Museum of Science and Industry

Decade
Type
Biology,
Region
North West
Location
University of Manchester
Key Individuals
Kathleen Drew-Baker,