Accelerating "blue growth“ by exploration of enzymes from seaweed

Algae play a very special role for the earth: in the history of the earth, they were the ones who brought oxygen into the atmosphere for the first time - albeit as an early microbial form - and only made life possible as we know it today.

Today, algae provide oxygen for every second breath we take. They also contain a variety of substances that can be used. The group of macroalgae, which are divided into green, red and brown algae according to their color spectrum, are true molecular manufacturers. One example is the particularly artfully constructed sugar molecules in macroalgae, which are assembled, broken down and reshaped in a variety of ways. The best known of these sugar compounds are agar agar, carrageenan and alginate - long-chain sugar compounds, which are mainly used in the food industry as natural texturizers, thickeners or stabilizers. But these special algae molecules are also used in color, photo, medical or laboratory products. Somewhat more exotic, but also already used in industry, are laminarin, fucoidan, furcellaran and ulvan. Who, if not the algae themselves, have the tools to produce and modify these molecules? In the biochemical world, these tools are called "enzymes".

High product quality in the bioeconomy often depends on effective enzymes in numerous sectors (food, feed, biofuels, flavors, chemicals, medicine, etc.). Algae offer great potential for the development of new and / or better enzymes. Redox enzymes from algae (REAs) in particular can serve as attractive products in the bio-industry, since many refinements in the biotech industry are based on redox reactions. Small enzymes in particular are ideal for optimizing and adapting genetically. And redox enzymes from algae are - according to the results from a previous project - probably rather small.

Recently, CRM-Coastal Research & Mangement, the University Medical Center Schleswig-Holstein (UKSH) and the Bremen University of Applied Sciences have been investigating the application potential of algal enzymes in the research project "REA".

This project, funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) with EUR 1.2 million, aims in particular to tap the enormous potential of previously unexplored small redox enzymes from marine algae.

Two main goals are in the foreground: 1. the development of a superior, competitive marker enzyme and 2. the establishment of an industry-oriented service based on an algae-related protein or enzyme database.

In doing so, the customer needs in industry and the potential of proteins should be brought into harmony. The research partners are working on candidate algal enzymes that could hold a prominent position in the bio-industry.

From an economic perspective, this obviously makes sense, because the enzyme market is "booming": In 2017, for example, global sales in this sector rose by 6.7% to EUR 5.8 billion. The demand for enzymes for diagnostics is also increasing. In this positive environment, redox enzymes from algae could enrich the biotechnological workbench. In addition, the establishment of a marketable service based on the "algal enzyme database" should improve the cost efficiency of research and development in the bioeconomy. This should work primarily because the database sorts and retrieves the diverse information about the algal enzymes and shows a possible industrial application. Interested parties from the bio-industry have the opportunity to "discover" new enzymes. In addition to this service, a “repository” with native and recombinant peptides and cDNA from algae should form the basis for so-called molecular primers for research and development purposes.

The “REA” project is a good example of how experts from various areas form a high-performance consortium that complements each other. This consortium brings together expertise in marine ecology, algae physiology, protein characterization, bioinformatics, recombinant protein production, antibody technology and experience in business development and marketing.

Author: Levent Piker, CRM Coastal Research & Mangement

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