Unlocking Algae’s Expression Chassis via Synthetic Biology

Expression Chassis

Illumination of small-scale microalgae cultures. Credit: Provectus Algae

It wasn’t until the middle of the 20th century that scientists began exploring the application of microalgae in biotechnology according to Nusqe Spanton in technologynetworks .com. Researchers realized that microalgae could be used beyond food — as a sustainable, photosynthesis-powered expression chassis.

The first successful example occurred in the 1980s when commercial groups cultured Dunaliella salina to produce β-carotene, a nutraceutical supplement that the body converts to vitamin A. We now know that microalgae species can produce a variety of high-value materials including pigments, flavors, fragrances, growth factors, fatty acids, antioxidants, oligosaccharides, proteins, terpenes, amino acids, peptides, and many more materials employed by key industries.

In just the past few years, advanced synthetic biology approaches have made the discovery and mapping of microalgae species and their industry- and molecule-specific potential, much more efficient and purpose-driven. In addition to improved recombinant gene transfer and genome editing techniques, the exponential growth of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning have made large dataset management and analysis much faster and less labor-intensive.

In turn, this enables better metabolic profile modeling, providing more accurate predictions of each species’ ability to produce a specific material. Now, individuals seeking biomanufactured alternatives to specific chemically synthesized materials can more readily seek out a species naturally primed to produce it or a related precursor.

These advancements have also enabled better characterization of these species and their specific cultivation requirements. Thus, researchers can more quickly identify the optimal conditions that enable specific microalgae to grow rapidly and produce their target molecules.

Manufacturing at scale: Light is the language

Most importantly, the past decade of algae research has proven that light conditions massively impact algal growth, gene expression, and biomaterial production on a species-specific basis. Light is the primary medium by which microalgae interact with their environment. So, to tap into their natural diversity, we must speak algae using light as our language.

All microalgae maintain intricate light-sensing systems, made up of a network of photoreceptors and associated signaling pathways. These photoreceptors control different biological functions and regulate specific gene expression to help algae respond to changing environmental conditions. Having evolved in very different ecosystems, these photosystems vary significantly between species, as do their photoreceptors and the in vivo functions they control. Thus, biomanufacturers must understand how this complex network of photoreceptors functions for each species.

With the ability to carefully tune photosynthesis, biomanufacturers can control microalgae growth, development, and biomaterial expression to suit their needs. Importantly, AI and synthetic biology approaches also help researchers determine and augment both ideal light conditions as well as conditions that impact the production of valuable organic materials and recombinant gene expression across species.

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