Sun protection for algae

Sunprotection for AlgaeResearchers at Bielefeld University together with colleagues from Italy and Australia identified a molecular mechanism that microalgae use to protect themselves from damaging environmental stress. According to the researchers, the results of their analysis could be used to speed up the cultivation of algae for the production of valuable products. An advance version of the study is now published online in the internationally renowned journal „Plant Cell“.

The key discovery for the study came from the Algae Biotechnology & Bioenergy Research Group headed by Professor Dr. Olaf Kruse at Bielefeld University’s Faculty of Biology and the Center for Biotechnology (CeBiTec). The researchers isolated a protective protein in unicellular microalgae that is only expressed under certain environmental stress conditions.. When activated, this pigment-containing protein scavenges excess solar energy. ‘In this way, the protein blocks the formation of oxygen radicals, thereby preventing any potential long-term damage to the organism,’ says Professor Kruse. Oxygen radical can lead to damages of the DNA and eventually to cell death.

‘In our analysis, we are engaged in basic research. Our primary concern is to understand the essential metabolic processes in algae,’ says Kruse. ‘Nonetheless, the research findings obtained at Bielefeld University might also have a major biotechnological relevance,’ he explains. The biologist is working on large-scale cultivation of microalgae for use as ”green cell factories” in biotechnology. Depending on their genetic apparatus, microalgae can produce not only energy such as biodiesel, biogas, or hydrogen but also other high value products for the pharmaceutical or cosmetics industries.

‘Now that we have discovered this new protective mechanism in algae, we know which stress factors compel the algae to protect themselves against sunlight. If we want to grow algae outdoors, we can use this knowledge to make their conditions as stress-free as possible. This will avoid damage to algae cultures and thereby increase yields.’ If necessary, it might even be possible to use molecular biology to optimize the protective mechanism. ‘One approach would be to modify the protective protein so that the algae react more robustly than before to excess sunlight.’

When carrying out this study on microalgae, Olaf Kruse’s Research Group cooperated with four international research institutes: Verona University (Italy), the Polytechnic University of Milan (Italy), the Italian Institute of Technology (IIT), and the University of Queensland (Australia).

Article: Light-Harvesting Complex Protein LHCBM9 Is Critical for Photosystem II Activity and Hydrogen Production in Chlamydomonas reinhardtii

Source: University of Bielefeld