Modifying Algae to Make Rare Antioxidants in Extreme Environments

Modifying Algae

Dr. Kyle J. Lauersen is an Assistant Professor and principal investigator of the Sustainable & Synthetic Biotechnology group at KAUST.

In a collaborative study between King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) and the Arizona Center for Algae Technology & Innovation (AzCATI) at Arizona State University (ASU), scientists are genetically modifying algae to produce orange-red pigments that make sea food healthier and are widely applicable in textiles and medicine.

Using the fully sequenced genome of the alga Cyanidioschyzon merolae, the researchers insert new genes that code for production of orange-red pigments. This causes the blue-green colored alga to produce orange-red antioxidants commonly used in food and animal health but difficult to find in nature.

The antioxidants canthaxanthin and astaxanthin are carotenoids, which are a class of yellow-orange-red natural pigments responsible for the color of tomatoes and carrots, and the pink of salmon and flamingos.

Astaxanthin is a powerful antioxidant known to make organisms that eat it healthier. Introducing astaxanthin to the diets of animals such as farmed shrimp can improve their health and enhance their red color. The carotenoid pigments can also be used as natural dyes for textiles and have wide nutraceutical and pharmaceutical applications.

A first-time genetic engineering process

“We are excited because this is the first-time genetic engineering has been used to change natural carotenoid pigments in a red alga,” said Dr. Kyle J. Lauersen, Assistant Professor of Bioengineering at KAUST and senior author of the study. “Genetic engineering of algae can help produce important natural chemicals like carotenoids sustainably. Algae has untapped potential as a sustainable solution which could benefit both the food and health industry, and the science shows it is possible to scale.”

The alga also contains a light-capturing blue pigment called phycocyanin which is used as a blue food coloring in confectionary and drinks. The scientists found production of canthaxanthin and astaxanthin did not reduce phycocyanin in the alga, meaning both blue and orange-red pigments can be produced together at once.

Growing algae requires optimal levels of sunlight, trace nutrients and carbon dioxide (CO₂). The engineered algae in the study demonstrated tolerance to high levels of CO₂ and high temperatures, which is relevant for growing in specific environments, for example, hot urban areas during summer months in Saudi Arabian or American deserts. As Cyanidioschyzon merolae is natively found in extreme environments with high temperatures, it is a promising candidate for local production in these areas.

“These acid-loving red algae have great potential for safe and innovative industrial applications,” said Dr. Peter J. Lammers, Research Professor at the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment at ASU and co-corresponding author of the study. “Their ability to grow in acidified waste affords options for circular economics and renewable materials that could sustain future generations. Together with KAUST, our long-term goal is to eliminate waste and use bioengineering to benefit humans and nature simultaneously. This study is the first of many that will harness biochemical pathways to generate renewable options for chemicals used every day.”

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