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Simple Single-Cell Algae has Complex DNA Structure that Offers Huge Biotech Potential

Algae plays a vital role in aquatic and marine ecosystems, and many different species are increasingly being used in a wide range of industries due to the benefits they offer. As researchers discover more about these lowly plant species that form the basis of marine and freshwater food chains, the possibilities for their inclusion in future biotechnologies is continuing to expand.

Now researchers from the John Innes Centre, Norwich (UK) -- whose primary mission is to gain a clearer understanding of natural biodiversity by studying the genetic makeup of plants and microbes -- have found that the common single-celled pond algae, Euglena gracilis, consists of a whole suite of as yet unclassified genes that are capable of making new types of carbohydrates and other natural products.

For such a tiny single-cell organism, it may come as a surprise that the scientists found it to be rather a complex task to sequence Euglena DNA, even with all the latest hi-tech DNA sequencing technology at hand.

Dr. Ellis O'Neill and Professor Rob Field sequenced Euglena gracilis' transcriptome -- an information center that records information regarding all the genes being actively used by the organism. After running the analysis, the researchers projected that this tiny organism consists of 32,000+ active, protein encoding genes, which is extensive if you consider that humans only have around 21,000 by comparison.

The scientists note that this extensive genetic diversity gives Euglena the ability to make a wide variety of natural products, many of which still need to be identified. They found that around 60% of Euglena's active genes are completely new and unique to this organism. As they do not yet know what these genes are, they also have no idea what they can potentially do.

The researchers found that different genes became active when Euglena was grown in light conditions compared to when it was grown in dark conditions, indicating that this organism has the ability to make radical metabolic changes depending on the current environmental conditions. This quality enables it to survive in a wide range of environments.

Euglena is currently used in a variety of natural health products, including essential amino acids, vitamins, and anti-HIV treatments. Considering the health benefits of the compounds that we are currently aware of, the potential of these newly discovered genes for use in future health and medicinal products, or as a new source of biofuel are enormous.

The next step for this research team is to work with other scientific specialists to identify and classify these new products, and to gain further insight into their potential uses.

We may consider these single-celled organisms to be simple, but in reality, they harbor an enormous array of genetic information. Scientists are now beginning to see the potential of simple structured microorganisms such as fungi, bacteria, viruses and microalgae, and as a result more and more scientific research is being focused on these organisms to determine their true potential and benefits to humankind.

References & Further Reading

1  Ellis O'Neill, Martin Trick, Lionel Hill, Martin Rejzek, Renata Dursi, Chris Hamilton, Paul Zimba, Bernard Henrissat, Rob Field. The transcriptome of Euglena gracilis reveals unexpected metabolic capabilities for carbohydrate and natural product biochemistry, Mol. BioSyst., 2015; DOI: 10.1039/C5MB00319A
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