Solar Biotechnologies for Tomorrow’s Pharma
Solar Biotechnologies

The University of Queensland’s Hankamer Lab is harnessing the ability of green algae to absorb solar energy and carbon dioxide in order to address health and environmental challenges.

In the next 30 years the world will need to produce 70% more food than in 2005, 50% more fresh water and fuel, while reducing CO₂ emissions by 100% — opening up a huge opportunity to expand large scale solar biotechnologies onto areas of land and ocean that would otherwise be non-productive.

Professor Ben Hankamer and his team at the University of Queensland’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience are harnessing the natural ability of green algae to absorb solar energy and carbon dioxide to produce molecules that may hold the key to curing some of the globe’s health and environmental challenges.

“Despite their small size, microalgae have shown they can have a big impact,” Professor Hankamer said. “We’ve engineered strains of the algae to produce molecules that deliver new diagnostics and treatments for conditions like stroke and epilepsy, inflammation, and bacterial infections — using the power of the sun, while reducing industrial carbon emissions.”

Why make medicines in algae?

Single-celled green algae have many advantages for medical research and applications, he notes. “They can be produced in low-cost bioreactors at mass scale to make the medicines of the future more affordable and accessible to more patients. Algal bioreactors are easier to keep free of contaminants, making the end products safer and cheaper.”

Algae can also help to assemble complex medicines and diagnostics such as monoclonal antibodies, for example for COVID testing, that have proved difficult and expensive to manufacture in traditional pharmaceutical systems.

Human health is also intricately linked with environmental health. Professor Hankamer warns that there is no time to waste in addressing the climate crisis. “The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has reported we are now faced with a code red for humanity. Now, more than ever is the time to ensure the world uses knowledge to make robust decisions for human and planetary health,” he says.

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