New Zealand may have a chance to break into the $1.6 billion seaweed industry thanks to research that could help make the sushi ingredient more productive to farm.
A breakthrough in 15 years of research by New Zealand scientists has unlocked new information about the most well-known red seaweed in the world, known as nori in Japanese and karengo in Maori.
The seaweed and other closely related species, which are used to make sushi, are highly prized worldwide. They are harvested from the wild and are also farmed.
A result of the New Zealand research was that the seaweeds had been reclassified and the discovery was important for breeding programmes, NIWA principal scientist Dr Wendy Nelson said.
Dr Nelson and an international team of experts, including fellow New Zealander Dr Judy Sutherland, had been looking closely at related red algae, using genetic sequencing to get new insights.
"We described four new genera, Dione, Minerva, Clymene and Lysithea," she said.
It clarified the genetic relationships between different types of seaweed.
"In the past, people have tried to cross species that we now know belong to different genera," Dr Nelson said.
Seaweed has been harvested for food in China from at least 550AD and in Japan as early as 1000AD.
New Zealand has around 850 native seaweeds, a third of which are endemic.
Maori traditionally use species of red and green seaweed as food and customary harvest of some seaweed species by Maori has continued and is recognised in legislation.