INNOVATION

The Deep Green Biotech Hub Will Program Algae To Grow New Drugs

The hub will pioneer Australia's contribution to the algae-based 'bio-economy'.

24/08/2016 9:46 AM AEST | Updated August 27, 2016 11:07
Stringer Shanghai / Reuters
Algae and skin care go together, I promise.

What a name -- the Deep Green Biotech Hub. It sounds like the type of place where steaming ponds of living creatures spin droplets of precious pharmaceuticals and microscopic algae do origami on proteins to create new cosmetic advances. And that's exactly what will happen at the $9 million facility to be built at UTS.

The hub's aim is to pioneer Australia's contribution to the algae-based 'bio-economy'.

After all, algae is a sustainable source of ingredients for drugs, nutritional supplements, cosmetics, industrial chemicals, animal feed and bio diesels.

What is algae?

China Stringer Network / Reuters
You shouldn't swim in an algae bloom.

Well, for starters, it's a living thing. In laymen's terms, it's a plant that mostly lives in the water and isn't particularly complex. Algae includes giant kelp and seaweed as well as microscopic single celled organisms that turn water green or turn flamingos pink.

Jianan Yu / Reuters
Flamingos are born grey but they eat algae that contains a pink pigment and molecules are deposited in their feathers.

Algae can glow but it can also be harmful to animals including humans -- with outbreaks causing mass deaths of fish and skin conditions among people.

ASSOCIATED PRESS
Dead sardines wash ashore in Chile as a 'red tide' algae bloom creates a toxin that paralyzes the central nervous system of a fish.

How is algae -- a brain-free plant -- able to learn to make all these new materials? UTS Climate Change Cluster C3 director Peter Ralph told The Huffington Post Australia the answer was simple.

"If you get the protein, the enzyme and the small molecules that are used as a pharmaceutical product and transfer them into the algae then the algae's biochemistry uses them to create that chemical compound within the algae," Ralph told HuffPost Australia.

"The algae folds the proteins in the right direction and then you can either have that protein expressed out of the cell into media like small droplets or you can crush the algae and isolate the product using chemical filters."

A similar process already happens with modified yeast and bacteria but Ralph said algae were more similar to humans and thus the products they made were more compatible without extra work.

"The advantage algae have are they are higher organisms -- bacteria is a prokaryote which is a lower life form while algae is a eukaryote, as are vertebrates and plants.

"Products that can't be made using bacteria could possibly be made with algae."

BananaStock
Algae create lipids and fats that can be used in skin care.

As for the skincare industry, Ralph said all algae used fats as a source of cell energy and those fats were a sustainable source of moisturisation.

"A wide range of oils are used as cosmetics and we've got 70,000 or more different types of algae and they all have different types of oil," Ralph said.

"It saves getting the oils from synthetic means or petrochemicals -- the plant source is more natural and sustainable."

These various products will be created in a range of labs including hermetically sealed rooms for products that can't be contaminated as well as big vats for industrial materials and open-air raceways for agricultural feedstock.

The NSW Government contributed $1 million to the hub and Minister for Small Business John Barilaro said it was about looking at the jobs of the future.

"The work being done at UTS to support the algae-based bio-economy both here and abroad is a fantastic example of the kind of innovation we're driving in NSW to encourage and strengthen the businesses that will create the jobs of the future," Barilaro said.

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