Algae research paves way for renewable carbon-negative source of medicines

Project includes D-Factory, which offers IOTA Pharmaceuticals a platform to study properties of microalga Dunaliella

Algae lake: the Dunaliella alga has been chosen because it produces a wide range of compounds. It can cope with extreme conditions, from salt caves in the Antarctic, to salt pans in the tropics. The high salinity and light intensity turns the microalgae orange by producing protective carotenoids. The pink-orange of many salt lakes containing Dunaliella is intensified by the presence of archaea, fellow single-celled organisms

The University of Greenwich in London, UK is leading a €10m international project to develop the microalga Dunaliella as a sustainable raw material that captures CO2 and can grow in some of the world’s harshest environments.

The project will include building a biorefinery called the D-Factory, which will turn every part of the alga into something useful.

This particular alga is able to produce up to 80% of its mass as fuel but is currently too expensive to cultivate for fuel alone. But it also produces compounds that are of interest in pharmaceutical, cosmetic, nutraceutical and other applications – and this may provide the solution.

Professor Pat Harvey

Project leader Professor Pat Harvey at the University of Greenwich commented: 'The race is on to develop a broader spectrum of compounds from algae which can be turned into high-value products including food and medicines.'

The project brings together 13 research institutions and businesses from eight countries, including experts in the biochemistry of Dunaliella, in large-scale cultivation of microalgae, in novel harvesting technologies and in bioprocessing development.

Together they aim to set a world benchmark for a biorefinery based on microalgae. Plans include the largest commercial cultivation of the single-cell organisms, in water raceways, lakes and photobioreactors.

The race is on to develop a broader spectrum of compounds from algae

Drug discovery company IOTA Pharmaceuticals will partner the University of Greenwich to research the potential of Dunaliella as a route to new medicines. The collaboration has won a £5,000 SPARK Award and the sponsorship of the Algal Bioenergy Special Interest Group (ABSIG).

IOTA is studying the biochemical pathways that produce Dunaliella’s essential metabolites – small chemicals synthesised by the microalgae that can form the building blocks of more complex, therapeutically useful natural products.

'Over half of all human medicines originate from natural products,' said David Bailey, CEO of IOTA Pharmaceuticals. 'We are focusing on the proteins catalysing these chemical transformations, using next-generation DNA sequencing approaches to identify, design and develop new processes for natural product synthesis.'

The D-Factory will grow the algae in dedicated photobioreactors, which offers IOTA a platform through which to study the plant’s properties.

At present, Dunaliella is only used commercially for its high beta-carotene content.

'The alga is simply freeze-dried and put in a capsule,' explained Professor Harvey. 'So when someone takes it as a vitamin supplement they are also consuming chemicals which could be used for something else. We need to apply biotechnology to explore the production of a broader spectrum of compounds.'