Called ‘signal transduction technology,’ the technique of Seattle-based Navitis was the subject of a study testing its ability to modulate the expression algae mRNA and protein. The study, which was published in Open Journal of Biophysics, claims to have successfully demonstrated the technique’s ability to alter specific enzyme levels in Chlamydomonas reinhardtii, which is a first step toward wider application of the technology to other metabolic pathways in other algal species.
Help still needed for scale-up phase
The cultivation of algae has always held out a glittering promise of customized, reproducible and cost effective production of molecules of interest, be they fuel oils, omega-3s, carotenoids or what have you. But at the price points that are realistic in these markets , as opposed to the production of pharmaceutical ingredients, the technology has all too often stumbled when it comes to the scale up phase. This is especially true in the fuel market, as it is rigidly commoditized and tied to the price of petroleum on the international market. The production of dietary ingredients affords a bit more leeway, but still is highly sensitive to price and there have been significant failures here, too.
Mike Butters, co-founder of Navitis and inventor of the technology, believes the technique offers a way to get algae a step closer to its full market potential. The technology is already being used to treat some cancerous tumors in terminal patients in a noninvasive and novel way.
“The margins for algae as a fuel source or as a source of lipids for human health products has always been an issue. Our technology with its ability to down regulate certain pathways allows us to boost the overall growth of the algae and the production of lipids within the individual cells,” said Butters.
Navitis was founded in 2002 and has gone through about $60 million to date developing its proprietary technology. Navitis calls this Voyager and the basic idea is to measure the electrostatic surface potential of various molecules using a type of ultra sensitive magnetometer originally developed for military use. Called SQUID, or superconducting quantum interference device, the magnetometer can build up a ‘cognate’ of a given substance, or its unique electrical signal, which in turns gives rise to a unique magnetic field. In the case of the algae test that cognate was taken from a given strand of RNA. When the cells are subjected to a magnetic field with that precise signature, the cells are ‘tricked’ so to speak into behaving as if they were undergoing a chemical reaction involving that substance.
“You can basically alter the organism to customize the production of proteins within the cell,” Butters said. This could potentially allow all sorts of flexibility without having to step over the genetic modification line. Butters gave the example of using the technology to alter how seeds behave. He said it would be theoretically possible to treat corn seeds with specific magnetic fields to yield plants that produce more kernels with shorter tassels, thus putting more of the plants’ energy into the parts that make the money.
“You could do all of that without the use of a GMO,” he said.