Researchers in Adelaide have discovered a critical link that will help accelerate the development of sustainably harvested microalgae into beneficial human health supplements.
A team at Flinders University’s Centre for Marine Bioproducts Development (CMBD) said that the dietary supplementation of fatty acids produced from microalgae have wide-reaching health benefits for humans, including the ability to reduce obesity, diabetes and fatty liver disease, prevent hair loss, and help wounds to heal.
In the past, developing these products for human consumption had been hampered by the current limits of bioimaging tools needed to allow easy, rapid and non-invasive evaluation of lipid conditions within microalgae.
But Flinders University PhD student Mohsinul Reza, under the supervision of Professors Jian Qin and Youhong Tang, has discovered a novel protocol that allows researchers to visualise the distribution and quantity of lipid drops in live algae on a confocal microscope.
“This new method could screen the capacity of lipid droplet production in other algal species that have the potential [to be] a source to produce healthy food for humans,” Professor Jian Qin said.
The unique nutritional profiles of microalgae, such as their high omega-3 fatty acid content, are essential for infant and brain development and cardiac health. Microalgae is called the “rainforest of the ocean” for its ability to create oxygen and convert carbon dioxide into organic carbon, but unlike plants the organism does not require valuable arable land for its production.
CMBD director and Flinders University Professor Wei Zhang, a biochemical engineer who is co-leading a bid to establish a national Marine Bioproducts Cooperative Research Centre in Australia, said there were many possible uses for microalgae.
“Our research spans the entire value chain, from microalgae cultivation and circular advanced biomanufacturing to the development of high-value functional food,” he said.
“Microalgae come in a diverse range of nutritional profiles and advanced cultivation strategies can be developed for tuning microalgae to produce protein-, oil-, and carbohydrate-dominant types that can be processed into a broad range of functional foods, including healthy cell patties, chips, pastes, jams, and even caviar.”
PhD student Reza discovered the optimal condition to maximise the production of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acid, such as omega-3, in Euglena gracilis — a species of lipid-producing microalgae.
His finding improves on traditional fluorescent probes currently used for lipid imaging, which often suffer from reduced photostability and difficulties in dye acquisition techniques that limits their usage for microscopic imaging.
The new bioprobe DPAS — a lipid-specific AIE fluorogen that is synthesised from very cheap materials — could surpass the performance of traditional fluorophore for lipid droplets staining in terms of photostability, rapid and easy sample preparation techniques.
This technique significantly eases the lipid study in this algal cell type. The fluorescent probe is also suitable for multicolour imaging that broadens the horizon of this dye for biological studies.
Many in the engineering world are looking to algae for a variety of uses beyond human health.
In the United States, researchers found that microalgae possess several unique metabolic attributes of relevance to biofuel production, including the accumulation of significant quantities of triacylglycerol, the synthesis of storage starch, and the ability to efficiently couple photosynthetic electron transport to H2 production.
Another research project from Arizona State University looked at how the properties of algae can be harnessed to become the driving force for a slew of productive biotechnological pursuits, such as strengthening materials used to build public infrastructure — all while sequestering carbon in the process to boost sustainability.
Back home, the Centre for Marine Bioproducts Development is hoping to transform Australia’s emerging marine bioproducts sector into a globally competitive industry. It works with the US Department of Agriculture and a number of universities in Asia to develop marine biotech products.
Other projects include working with a Chinese firm to investigate the anticancer and immune functions of Hengshan Astragalus Shiitake on bowel, colon and rectal cancers.
In another collaboration with a Chinese firm, the Centre is developing advanced bio-refinery processes for the production of microalgae and marine-derived functional proteins and peptides, aimed at upgrading production technologies and developing prototype products to meet potential market demand.