Switching on starch production in algae

[Japan] A team of scientists in Japan has found a method to increase the production of biofuels in algae. They published their findings in The Plant Journal.

Compared to land plants, algae have high photosynthetic productivity and are relatively easy to cultivate. Starch, triacylglycerols and other algal biomass constituents are increasingly viewed as a promising and powerful way to contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals outlined by the United Nations.

In this study, researchers led by Associate Professor Sousuke Imamura at the Tokyo Institute of Technology has found a ‘switch’ controlling the level of starch content in algae, thereby raising the amount of biofuel produced. The researchers used unicellular red alga Cyanidioschyzon merolae and demonstrated that starch content in the algae could be dramatically increased through inactivation of a protein called target of rapamycin, or TOR. The activity of this protein is suppressed by applying rapamycin, a small molecule drug.

The researchers observed a notable increase in the level of starch 12 hours after inactivation of TOR with rapamycin. After 48 hours, this increase in starch levels was as much as tenfold. The scientists went on to study the mechanism underlying this profound increase in starch content. Using a method called liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry, the researchers examined subtle changes in the structure of more than 50 proteins that might be involved in ‘switching on’ the process of starch accumulation. They pinpointed GLG1 as a key protein of interest, which is known to be involved in the initiation of starch synthesis.

According to the scientists, these findings could be of immense interest to a wide range of industries seeking to scale up biofuel and value-added biochemicals production. They note that more studies using other algal species, as well as higher plants such as Arabidopsis thaliana, could yield further information about the fundamental molecular mechanisms behind starch accumulation.

“This information will help to develop technologies to improve starch biosynthesis productivity and concomitantly improve sustainable biomass and bioenergy production,” said Imamura. The article can be found at: Pancha et al. (2018) Target of Rapamycin (TOR) Signaling Modulates Starch Accumulation via Glycogenin Phosphorylation Status in the Unicellular Red Alga Cyanidioschyzon merolae.


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