TINY FACTORIES OF THE FUTURE
A row of buildings with smokestacks spewing black smoke has generally been the accepted depiction of factories since the Industrial Revolution in Europe in 1760. However, the advent of new, more efficient and environmentally friendly technologies has seen the size of factories getting smaller and smaller. Another significant difference is that they certainly don’t spew out acrid, sooty black smoke like their coal-fired predecessors from 200 years ago. And they are about to get smaller, way smaller. Actually, tiny would be more appropriate to describe the size of the factories of the future as scientists all over the world are focusing their research on cell factories or molecular farming. Yes, that is right. Cell factories, as in single-cell organisms. Assoc Prof Dr Cha Thye San of IMB is in the thick of the action in this international research trend, tweaking microalgae cells to produce oil, nutraceuticals and other beneficial products. He said microalgae, like plants, are photosynthetic in nature. “The only difference is that unlike plants, microalgae are single-cell microorganisms. Size-wise, they are bigger than bacteria,” he said. “Just like plants, they have chlorophyll and can produce many bioactive compounds that can then be processed into pharmaceutical and industrial products,” he said. Dr Cha said one of the primary metabolites of microalgae are fatty acids or lipids. The reason why the scientific world is abuzz with research into microalgae as an oil-producing crop is that the tiny plant can produce high amounts of oil compared to its weight. “Among the present oil-producing crops, oil palm produce the highest amount of oil per hectare but research into microalgae has shown that the microorganism can produce even more oil than oil palm,” he said. He said some researchers in the West had found that some microalgae can produce oil of up to 80 percent of their dry weight. “At IMB, we had collected microalgae from the mangrove and wetland area. We found that some of them can produce oil of more than 50 percent of their weight,” he said, adding that some species can easily produce more than 30 percent without much tweaking. “This is very encouraging as scientists generally agreed that anything more than 20 percent is considered suitable for commercialization,” he said. Another amazing capability of microalgae is that it can produce two types of oils, the first of which is similar to those produced by some plants with low polyunsaturated fatty acid content. “The first type is suitable to be made into biodiesel as it requires oils that are low in polyunsaturated fatty acids such as Omega-3 fatty acids,” he said. “There are also species of microalgae that can produce polyunsaturated fatty acids like Omega-3, DHA and EPA and these are suitable to be processed into food,” he said. “Interestingly, in my research we found that the same species can produce different types of fatty acids in different culture conditions,” he said. Dr Cha said compared to oil palm that can only yield it first crop after three to four years, microalgae can be harvested in about one month. “There are microalgae species that live a very short cycle of 24 hours and some others that multiply every one or two hours,” he said. “If we optimize the parameters of the microalgae culture then we can tweak its growth to an even faster level,” he said. He added that without genetic engineering, the tweaking of parameters alone can lead to designer oil-producing microalgae. “If we employ genetic engineering, we can research on how these microalgae produce fatty acids and can manipulate their genetic makeup so that we can make it produce the types of fatty acids that we need,” he said. “After understanding how they work at the genetic level, we can use the genetically modified organism (GMO) approach to get the best microalgae for any specific purposes,” he said. The GMO approach could also lead to microalgae becoming cell factories for anything from drugs vaccines to enzymes. “We can put the DNA fragments that produce the drugs vaccines or enzymes into the microalgae so that it can be replicated and expressed. As the microalgae has a very high growth rate, we can get a lot of biomass from which to extract the useful products in a very short time,” he said. “In the case of oil production, we can also take the specific gene that produces a specific fatty acid, let’s say Omega 3, and put it back into the microalgae. Having more genes that can produce the fatty acid will result in higher productivity,” he said. Dr Cha said results in this aspect of research are still low but the protocol to achieve it has been established. “There are still many obstacles to be overcome in order to make all these commercially viable but what we had achieved so far is very promising for the future,” he said.