Algae, Microalgae & Seaweed

Danish Scientists Use Blue-Green Algae to Develop “The Ultimate Way to Make Protein”

Scientists at the University of Copenhagen have found a way to make protein by using cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) as a “surrogate mother”.

In a new study, the scientists successfully used cyanobacteria to produce a protein with long, fibrous strands that resemble meat fibres. The process involved inserting foreign genes into the blue-green algae, which then became a host organism for the protein. Within each cyanobacterium, the protein organized itself into tiny threads (nanofibres).

“Being able to manipulate a living organism to produce a new kind of protein which organises itself into threads is rarely seen to this extent – and it is very promising,” said Poul Erik Jensen of the university’s Department of Food Science.

Cyanobacteria can be grown very sustainably, requiring just water, atmospheric CO2, and solar rays. They are also rich in protein and healthy polyunsaturated fatty acids. Unlike some plant-based proteins, cyanobacteria require little processing, which preserves nutrients and saves energy.

Scientists develop new way to make protein with algae
Cyanobacteria with protein fibres seen through a microscope. The protein fibres are marked ‘F’. Image: University of Copenhagen

“I am certain we can succeed”

The researchers will now need to determine how to optimise the cyanobacteria’s production of protein fibres. If this is successful, the result could be a highly sustainable protein that is ideal for use in meat alternatives.

Jensen believes that Denmark could be a significant producer of this protein, pointing out that cyanobacteria are already grown industrially in many countries. He believes that the country’s efficient agricultural sector and skilled biotech companies would make it an “obvious place” to establish cyanobacteria facilities.

One of the most well-known types of cyanobacteria is spirulina, which previous studies have indicated is a surprisingly effective alternative to animal protein. Companies such as SimpliiGood have already successfully used spirulina to develop meat and fish alternatives.

“We need to refine these organisms to produce more protein fibres, and in doing so, ‘hijack’ the cyanobacteria to work for us,” said Jensen. “It’s a bit like dairy cows, which we’ve hijacked to produce an insane amount of milk for us. Except here, we avoid any ethical considerations regarding animal welfare. We won’t reach our goal tomorrow because of a few metabolic challenges in the organism that we must learn to tackle. But we’re already in the process and I am certain that we can succeed. If so, this is the ultimate way to make protein.”

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