Scientists modify microalgae to convert sunlight into complex molecules for natural compounds

By Simon Pitman

- Last updated on GMT

Scientists modify microalgae to convert sunlight into complex molecules for natural compounds

Related tags Metabolism

A research team from Copenhagen Plant Science Centre at University of Copenhagen has modified a strain of microalgae so that it ‘manufactures’ a range of complex molecules.

Although the project has focused on creating compounds for pharmaceuticals and medical purposes, the process could be used to create natural-based, plant derived chemicals for a variety of applications, including cosmetics and personal care.

The team of researchers say that the project has taken the natural manufacturing of chemicals to a new level and is likely to have positive implications when it comes to efficiency, costs and environmental footprint.

Hijacking the energy

"So basically, the idea is that we hijack a portion of the energy produced by the microalgae from their photosynthetic systems,”​ said Post Doc Agnieszka Janina Zygadlo Nielsen, who along with colleagues Post Doc Thiyagarajan Gnanasekaran and PhD student Artur Jacek Wlodarczyk has been the main researcher behind the study.

“By redirecting that energy to a genetically modified part of the cell capable of producing various complex chemical materials, we induce the light driven biosynthesis of these compounds.”

The researchers approached the project by first modifying microalgae genetically in an effort to create ‘small chemical factories that also have a built in power supply triggered by sunlight – the point that makes the process highly efficient and environmentally friendly.

Fragrances, bioplastics... the list is endless

The researchers say that there could be many types of chemicals that could be produced using the process, with compounds for bioplastics and fragrances being just a few.

The scientists have also stressed that many such compounds are very expensive to produce, making this particular process highly valuable because the laboratory testing has proved it to be inexpensive to both set up and process.

But in addition to the cost savings and efficiently, it is also a highly sustainable method that can be operated on a continuous basis.

Uses only water, sunlight and CO2

"Our study shows that it is possible to optimize the enzymatic processes in the cells using only sunlight, water and CO2 by growing them in transparent plastic bags in a greenhouse,”​ said hiyagarajan Gnanasekaran, a member of the research team.

“Theoretically, the water could be replaced with sewage water, which could make the process run on entirely renewable energy and nutrient sources. Recycling wastewater from industry and cities to produce valuable substances would surely be positive."

Conventional microalgae processing systems rely on plants or yeast and E. coli bacteria for the processing, whereas the system devised by the researchers is based on water, sunlight and CO2, making it far more efficient and economical.

Moving forward, the team says it will be focused on making the process more efficient by trying to turn more of the energy involved in the microalgae's metabolic process and funnelling it into the actually manufacturing process.

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