DMI wins $35K NSERC Engage grant to manufacture Vanilla in algae

DMI is exploring sustainable and eco-friendly ways to build plant products in algae with an initial proof-of-concept experiment for vanilla production in algae

Designer Microbes Incorporated (DMI), a genetic engineering company from London, Ontario specializing in sustainable energy production and agriculture, has been awarded a NSERC Engage Grant of $35,000 to explore environmental friendly, cost-effective and sustainable methods of manufacturing plant-products in algae. This work will be done in collaboration with and Dr. Isabel Desgagné-Penix, Department of Chemistry, Québec à Trois-Rivières (UQTR).

As a proof of concept, DMI and UQTR will be producing vanillin, the main characteristic component in vanilla, one of the most widely utilized flavours in the world with extensive usage in the food, beverage, perfume and pharmaceutical industries. The production of pure vanilla is the most labour intensive agricultural activity, with an average production time of three years, making it the second most-expensive spice in the world after saffron.The high demand of vanillin has prompted various ways to produce vanillin apart from natural ways where 1 KG of vanillin requires about 500 KG of vanilla pods.

Plant products (PP), apart from flavours and spices like vanilla, constitute some of the most important things in our daily use from fuels, pharmaceuticals, flavours and fragrances. Plant product sales worldwide totalled $76.6 billion USD in 2008, of which Canada has 1.6% of total sales. Canada lags far behind in critical areas such as cultivation, research and production of plant products.

While plant products are good and environmental friendly, current methods of production and extraction suffer from a number of disadvantages such as low quantities, seasonal growth dependency, causing problems in supply. Additionally, the methods are time-consuming, expensive, low yield and inefficiency.

Micro-algae are water-dwelling organisms that grow in seas, freshwaters and wastewater. With barely 6% of an estimated one million varieties of micro-algae described, they represent a sustainable and environmentally friendly yet untapped resource of medicine, food and fuel.

Micro-algae are also suitable for genetic engineering of plant products. They share very similar genetic pathways, are very easy for work with, and plant DNA can easily be inserted into them. Moreover, they double their population every 24 hours and their metabolism actually produces oxygen. Thus, after an efficient extraction protocol, they can be recycled to produce oxygen and energy as a renewable resource.

DMI will be leveraging its scientific and technical expertise to successfully use algae, a tiny micro-organism to produce vanilla, that in plants is created after a series of multiple complicated pathways.

The production of vanillin from micro-algae is the first step in establishing a link between DMI and UQTR and the partnership hopes to expand this cost-effective and environmental friendly and sustainable platform for the production of other plant products in the future.

The grant combines the expertise of the two organizations, DMI and UQTR.     Dr. Bogumil Karas, the president and chief scientific officer of DMI, has spent years developing genetic engineering tools for working with algae and provides invaluable scientific expertise and guidance. The labs and personnel in UQTR have expertise in plant biochemistry and molecular biology and come with fully equipped laboratories to carry out this project. The research project will be carried out by a graduate student in the laboratory under the supervision of UQTR and DMI. This will also give the collaboration an opportunity to provide education and training to future scientists.

Ultimately, using micro-algae to manufacture important and essential plant products offer immense potential to improve Canada’s environmental, agricultural and pharmaceutical sectors. The information gained through the proposed research will promote the commercial development of emerging technologies and advance fundamental knowledge in the field.

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