Matrix breaks through on genetic methods for modifying spirulina: new platform for proteins, pigments

Milestone reached on protein, phycocyanin in spirulina — opens up new opportunities for algae, cyanobacteria.

In Washington, we have big news this week that Matrix Genetics announced a technology breakthrough that allows for rapid and efficient production of pigments and proteins in Spirulina, a species of cyanobacteria. Matrix is the first to invent rapid and efficient genetic methods for modifying Spirulina. These methods have been long sought after by the algal industry, but have proven elusive.

One of the first applications of Matrix’s new technology is a strain of Spirulina that can double the yield of phycocyanin, a natural antioxidant that is used as a nutritional supplement as well as a blue pigment for the food, cosmetic and medical industries. The market for phycocyanin is predicted to double over the next three years, and Matrix’s new technology is well positioned to help industry meet this increased demand.

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Matrix’s discovery opens the door to not only increasing the amounts of the products currently derived from Spirulina (for example, phycocyanin) but also for using Spirulina as a photosynthetic workhorse to cheaply produce a large variety of commercially valuable proteins and pigments.

Now, why are proteins critical?

There are some noted exceptions, but most renewable fuel providers — contrary to the “food vs fuel” line of critique — find themselves either in the food business, or intimately connected to it.

In the case of many potential food workhorses, it is the opportunities in fuels and chemicals that have powered intensified research that is unlocking protein potential. Jatropha, castor, carinata, camelina and algae are just five examples where accelerated research is unlocking both food and fuel value for developed and developing countries that need sustainable sources of both.

For corn ethanol producers, two thirds of their products by weight are distillers grains or a pure CO2 often used in carbonated drinks. In the biodiesel business, most production is generally uses the residue fats, oils and greases from the food chain or the soybean oil left over after soybean meal is generated. For sugarcane producers, there is a tight balance between ethanol production for the fuel markets (and sometimes for the spirits sector) and sugar production as a food ingredient.

In the world of advanced biofuels, cellulosic ethanol is generally produced from agricultural byproducts for corn or cane. Renewable diesel is produced from the same type of feedstocks as biodiesel. Renewable jet fuel is generally produced from virgin or waste sugars, and virgin or waste oils.

In general, the story of biofuels is the story of how to make food production more valuable, per acre. No matter what the feedstock, where there are means to make proteins for human food or animal feed, generally they are pursued.

The Algae Lag

That’s generally been the story of algae development and algae economics, both on the green algae side and in cyanobacteria. Virtually every producer still standing is embracing a diversified model of food, fuel, lubricants, solvents, and nutritional supplements — the balance depends on the opportunities provided by the algae strain.

Efforts in algae and cyanobacteria have been hampered to date by the lack of lack of efficient genetic engineering methods that have been crucial in increasing the availability of other global sources of protein such as soy, canola and corn. Cyanobacteria such as Spirulina are cultivated worldwide for use as a human and animal food supplement due to their high protein content, and are also a rich source of B vitamins, minerals, and anti-oxidant carotenoids such as beta-carotene. But the production has been been limited.

How and why the Matrix breakthrough matters

“Genetic engineering is the key technology for the manufacture of almost all valuable products by industrial micoorganisms.  Matrix has finally discovered how to bring this technology to Spirulina”, said Jim Roberts, Chief Scientific Officer at Matrix Genetics. “Our technology allows us to stably and precisely introduce new genes into the Spirulina genome, resulting in increased amounts of valuable proteins, new biochemical pathways and improved production traits.”

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“We’ve been able to unlock the potential of Spirulina to meet the needs of multi-billion dollar markets in several industries,” said Margaret McCormick, CEO of Matrix Genetics. “The ability to quickly and easily improve the performance of Spirulina while using existing cultivation techniques removes a major bottleneck in the commercial success of cyanobacteria.”

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