Algae could produce carbon neutral bioplastic, with “chemical magic trick”

TGL News

New international research uncovering exactly what happens as bacteria breaks down the carbohydrates contained in algae could create a valuable, sustainable resource.

According to a paper out of the Vienna University of Technology (TU Wien), this means the chemical degradation of algae could have diverse applications as a renewable raw material. Potential uses could span fermentation and the production of sugars, right to the creation of bioplastics.

“The utilisation of algae to synthesise hydrocarbons is 100 per cent carbon-neutral,” the research found. “If this method can be successfully used to create products that had previously been produced using fossil-based resources, it would be an important step for climate protection.”

The research deciphered the “little chemical magic trick” that sees the marine bacteria Formosa agariphila degrade the algae’s carbohydrates. It found the process to be a series of steps in which “twelve different enzymes are employed to break down the macromolecule into ever smaller building blocks”.

“As a result, we now not only understand how these microorganisms gain access to this source of nutrition. We now also have access to a toolbox consisting of a whole spectrum of new biocatalysts,” says Professor Uwe Bornscheuer, a collaborative researcher from the University of Greifswald, Germany, “thus opening up the possibility of using this complex marine polysaccharide in a targeted manner as a resource for fermentations.”

Collaboration is key

The research project was led by the University of Greifswald, in collaboration with TU Wien, the Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology, the University of Bremen, research centre MARUM – Center for Marine Environmental Sciences and Roscoff Marine Station.

According to Marko Mihovilovic of TU Wien, this level of international collaboration is what makes answering complex research questions possible.

“We have been working with our partners from Germany for some time now, with great success,” Mr Mihovilovic said. “We will also continue to do so in the future – this should allow us to make significant progress, and ultimately to progress towards sustainable chemistry that will enable a genuine, environmentally sound circular economy.”

The results of the research were recently published in the specialist journal Nature Chemical Biology.