Algae-UK: exploiting the algal treasure trove

Lead Research Organisation: University College London
Department Name: Structural Molecular Biology

Abstract

'Algae' are photosynthetic organisms with the term encompasses both macroscopic forms (seaweeds) and microscopic forms (eukaryotic microalgae and cyanobacteria). The unifying features of algae is that they use sunlight to convert CO2 into biomass and they grow in an aquatic environment. There is huge biological diversity amongst the 100,000's species of algae with many suitable as sources of food, livestock and aquaculture feed, natural fibres and biofuels. In addition, compounds derived from algae have a wide range of potential applications such as novel drugs, health supplements, bio-polymers and natural pigments. Algae therefore represent an important component of a sustainable, bio-based future in which valuable products are generated from CO2 and basic nutrients by photosynthesis, but cultivation does not require arable land, unlike crop plants. Furthermore, advances in genetic engineering and synthetic biology offer the possibility of designer cyanobacteria or microalgae tailored to produce a range of novel high-value recombinants such as therapeutic proteins and speciality biomolecules.

The UK has an excellent science base in the biology and biotechnology of cyanobacteria, microalgae and macroalgae. However, it remains small and relatively under-resourced compared to the millions of dollars being invested in applied algal research in the US, China, and in mainland Europe. Despite this, the current PHYCONET NIBB has built an enthusiastic community of academics, industry and other stakeholders and helped catalyse significant R&D and engagement in the area of 'high value products from microalgae'. The new network, Algae-UK, will build on this momentum by broadening the remit of the network to encompass macroalgae, and to give more focus to the emerging area of cyanobacterial synthetic biology. Furthermore, Algae-UK will extend its focus beyond high-value products: this is particularly relevant for macroalgae where the last few years has seen a dramatic increase in interest in seaweeds as health foods and dietary supplements, as well as animal feeds, fertilisers and sources of hydocolloid polymers used as natural thickeners and gums.

The objectives of Algae-UK will be to support translational research into key areas that are likely to advance the algal biotechnology sector. Namely: i) genetic improvement and domestication of key algal species; ii) development of advanced platform strains through applications of synthetic biology; iii) exploitation of algal metabolic diversity; iv) advancing engineering solutions to efficient cultivation and downstream processing; v) understanding the opportunities and barriers to commercial success, including regulation, environmental constraints; public acceptance; market competition.

Algal-UK will serve as the hub for the UK algal biosciences research community, businesses operating in the IB sector, and other stakeholders - creating the critical mass of expertise, effort and focus needed to achieve the step-change and make the UK a leading player in algal biotechnology. We will also forge links with other algal biotech networks and organizations in Europe, the US, China and other leading countries to further raise the profile of the UK community and share funding and training opportunities.

Technical Summary

Eukaryotic and prokaryotic algae are diverse photosynthetic organisms that have considerable potential as industrial biotechnology (IB) platforms for a wide range of natural and engineered bio-products, from bioplastics and biofuels to high value bioactives. Moreover, cultivation of microalgae or cyanobacterial in closed photobioreactors offers an attractive low-carbon alternative to existing heterotrophic technologies, whereas cultivation of macroalgae (seaweeds) offers an alternative to crop cultivation on arable land. However, algal IB is an immature field that requires step-changing advances in algal biology, genetic engineering, cultivation at scale and downstream processing. Currently, considerable research and development is occurring in countries such as the US and China, and several European countries, as is evident from $m investments and the many start-up companies. The previously funded PHYCONET NIBB (which focussed mainly on microalgae) has brought together academic researchers, a fledgling industrial sector and other key stakeholders to create a vibrant, cohesive community of over 600. PHYCONET has significantly raise the profile and interest in microalgal IB within the UK and helped give this community an international voice. Network support has progressed a number of key projects up the TRL scale and catalysed engagement with the wider community. The new network, Algae-UK, will build on this momentum by broadening the remit of the new network to encompass macroalgae, and to give more focus to the emerging area of cyanobacterial synthetic biology. It will serve as the hub for the UK algal biosciences research community, businesses operating in the IB sector, and other stakeholders - creating the critical mass of expertise, effort and focus needed to achieve key step-changes and make the UK a leading player in algal biotechnology.

Planned Impact

There is considerable interest in the UK and indeed worldwide in developing an algal industrial biotechnology (IB) sector, both at the level of policy makers and research funders, but also industry. However, because exploitation is still at an early stage, there needs to be some form of proven platform technology before industry would feel confident about moving into the area.

Through the Algae-UK network we to aim to tackle this issue head on, by creating the critical mass of expertise, effort and focus needed to achieve the step-change and make the UK a leading player in algal biotechnology. This will benefit a wide range of IB sectors that have interest in natural bio-products, including the pharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals, cosmetics, food, feed and biofuel industries.

Government and Public Bodies will also benefit, since the outputs of the network can have an impact on several pressing current issues: building the knowledge economy will lead to inward investment and wealth creation, and contribute to sustainable economic growth, improve security of food and materials, and contribute to enhanced nutrition.

The outreach activities aim to increase awareness of the public on issues of natural products and the bio-based economy, energy, food and material security, and how the development of IB and a knowledge economy can benefit the UK. This will encourage pupils to adopt a career in science and technology, and policy makers to promote research investment into the algal IB sector.

Publications

10 25 50
 
Description The Algae-UK Network aims to promote algal biotechnology to a wide audience, including policy-makers, entrepreneurs, funders and the general public. Our network is therefore open to anyone with an interest in algal biotechnology, and our networking events (conferences, workshops, exhibitions, etc.) together with our monthly newsletters, regular tweets, website, etc. are made available to all our membership.
First Year Of Impact 2019
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology,Pharmaceuticals and Medical Biotechnology
 
Description Funding collaboration with IBioIC 
Organisation IBioIC
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Algae-UK and IBioIC are jointly funding those Proof-of-Concept projects that were successful following the first Algae-UK PoC call.
Collaborator Contribution 2-3 projects (£50k each) likely to be funded by IBioIC (final decision still pending).
Impact 2-3 projects likely to be funded by IBioIC (final decision still pending).
Start Year 2020
 
Description Delegation to research centres and companies in Mexico 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact A visit by seven UK researchers and business leaders from the algal biotechnology sector to centres in Xalapa and Monterrey, Mexico to discuss opportunities for engagement and collaboration. Two-day workshops and practical demonstrations were held at each location, each involving approximately 50 attendees from local universities and businesses. Both events generated significant interest, both in forging UK-Mexico links and in replicating the Algae-UK NIBB model as a mechanism for creating a national network in a key biotechology area.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL https://www.linkedin.com/feed/update/urn:li:activity:6638101335554174977/
 
Description Presentation at part of the Clean Tech Challenge 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Undergraduate students
Results and Impact Presentation and discussion exploring the use of algae for clean technologies.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://londonevolution.org/homepage/past-events/trips/2019-2/saul-purton-clean-tech-using-microalga...
 
Description Presentation of Algae-UK to delegates attending EIT-Food Course, Cambridge December 2019 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact The aim of this professional development course was to provide introductory hands-on training and theory in algal biology, culturing, growth and subsequent molecular and metabolite analysis under laboratory and small to large scale growth facilities, as well as giving business information and networking opportunities specifically tailored towards the algal bioeconomy.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.eitfood.eu/programmes/algal-biotechnology-techniques-and-opportunities-for-the-sustainab...
 
Description School visit (Dunottar School, Reigate) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact Presentations and discussion activity given by Prof Saul Purton and Dr Henry Taunt to years 10 & 11 part of their Science Week.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.dunottarschool.com/news-events/latest-news/scientists-visit-dunottar-school-to-speak-at-...