An Edinburgh Innovations client’s breakthrough using the CRISPR gene-editing technique means vast quantities of medicines and renewable fuels could be produced by algae.

Algae have great potential to produce biofuels, medicine ingredients and livestock feed that does not compete with agricultural products. They can also make environmentally friendly products for the cosmetics, plastics, food and other industries.

A lack of engineering tools has hindered research and industrial use of algae for decades, but researchers led by Dr Attila Molnar have now made a breakthrough using recently developed CRISPR techniques, dramatically improving yields of algae.

Genetic scissors

CRISPR gene editing uses molecules that act like scissors to cut DNA, allowing researchers to add new genes or modify existing ones. Until now, scientists have struggled to develop a technique that works efficiently in algae.

To overcome this, the team added CRISPR molecular scissors and short pieces of DNA directly to algae cells to make precise modifications to the genetic code.

Their new method is more specific and increases efficiency 500-fold compared with previous techniques. The discovery could unleash the potential of the global algae industry, projected to be worth $1.1billion by 2024.

‘Key advance’

Dr Molnar, of the School of Biological Sciences, said: “Our findings mark a key advance in large-scale algal genome engineering. Our technique is applicable to a wide range of species, and could pave the way for the development of designer algae, which has many biotechnology applications.”

The team developed its technique to work in a widely used species of algae – called Chlamydomonas reinhardtii. The method could potentially also be used to engineer crops to increase yields, improve disease resistance or enable plants to thrive in harsh climates.

Funding support

The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was funded by Phyconet, a Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council Network in Industrial Biotechnology and Bioenergy, and the biotech company Scottish Bioenergy.

Edinburgh Innovations facilitated the successful Phyconet funding application and collaboration with Scottish Bioenergy, which is supporting a PhD studentship to validate the opportunities for this technology. EI has also helped with the patenting of novel tools that have come out of this research.

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