Breakthrough in Blue Biotechnology

An algae cultivator in a biology lab at NYU Abu Dhabi.

New Technique Allows Critical Oxygen and Food-Producing Algae to Grow in Previously Unsustainable Environments

A team of synthetic biologists from NYU Abu Dhabi, in collaboration with researchers from the UAE University, have established a new approach to enhance algal productivity, allowing these photosynthetic microorganisms to rapidly grow under otherwise prohibitively high-intensity light conditions in the UAE, Middle East, and similar climates around the world.

The new technique promotes the growth of diatoms, microscopic algae that can be cultivated in salt water and utilized to produce biofuels, animal feed and other sustainable, bio-based products. The new strategy developed in the study improves light absorption and utilization, which can make great contributions toward global sustainability in the coming years according to the forecasts of increasing global energy and food demands. The findings are published today in the journal Science Advances.

Motivated to improve light utilization in algae, the UAE-based scientists, led by Kourosh Salehi-Ashtiani, PhD, Associate Professor of Biology at NYU Abu Dhabi, have developed and implemented a rapid and effective approach, referred to as Intracellular Spectral Recompositioning of light (ISR), to boost light utilization in algal photosynthesis. They have genetically engineered diatoms -- one of the most common groups of algae in the marine environments -- for an improved absorption of high-energy blue light, which can be harmful to cells when in excess, shifting the blue light spectrum toward green, which diatoms can use to grow and divide.

This study opens a new door to wide exploitation and application of local marine resources, in which the local diatom and other algal isolates, such as those found in the UAE can be engineered with a similar strategy to boost their productivity for a sustainable bio-economy.

“We have isolated a number of diatom species from the UAE that are already promising on their own; however, we hope that we can make them even better with this technology to get them one step closer to the stage that they can be used as production strains,” said Salehi-Ashtiani.

The study also reveals that the improved in growth correlates with the increased expression of key genes involved in photosynthesis, while decreasing the expression of “stress-genes,” which normally reduce growth. These findings provide a proof of concept for the development of more efficient algal-based “cell factories” that can provide green solutions for the production of high-value bio-based products, such as nutraceuticals including antioxidants, which have a multi-billion dollar global market, using closed growth systems, or “photo-bioreactors” as often called.

“With this technology, algae can be grown in photo-bioreactors at a higher density and a faster pace, reducing cost and speeding up production,” said Weiqi Fu, PhD, a Research Scientist at NYU Abu Dhabi and the lead researcher of the study.

Because diatoms are largely marine organisms that don’t require fresh water for their cultivation, the results of the study, once implemented, offer enhanced solutions for increased regional and global food and energy securities. Algae farming could be more productive and take place in a far broader range of locations, bringing this new technology across the UAE and around the world.