December 20, 2011

Missoula biochemical research fueled by ancient algae

Sometimes, to see the future you have to look back - say, 2.5 billion years back.

That's the plan at Missoula-based Blue Marble Biomaterials, a young company exploring ways to make extremely valuable products out of prosaically natural processes.

"We concentrate on making things worth between $5,000 and $6,000 a kilogram," Blue Marble co-founder James Stephens said. Things like food colorings, flavors and nutritional oils derived from coffee grounds, beer mash and algae. And a recent discovery about a very old form of algae may revolutionize both Blue Marble and the whole business of bioengineering.

Stephens graduated from the University of Montana and went to Seattle to start a business. In 2010, he moved back to Missoula and went to his alma mater's office of technology transfer, looking for promising research.

When tech transfer director Joe Fanguy handed over a description of geoscience professors Carrine Blank and Nancy Hinman's work on algae evolution, Stephens wasn't immediately interested. He'd worked with algae before, trying to get the primitive plant form to produce biofuels or digest water pollutants. Those projects either required too much government subsidy to be economical or didn't attract enough interest to be profitable.

Algae had another problem. It typically needs a lot of nitrogen-based fertilizer to feed on. Most nitrogen-based fertilizer comes from petrochemicals, which are both expensive and produce lots of greenhouse gases - something Blue Marble was trying to eliminate, not produce.

"But the metabolic path they discovered is unique to the algae world," Stephens said. "It's a non-fertilizer nitrogen source that grows a broad variety of organisms. It opens up a chance for a wide diversity of products."

Blank specializes in evolutionary biology, the study of how and when organisms developed crucial traits that improved their chances of survival. In looking at the genetic structure of some old strains of algae, she noticed they were feeding off a form of nitrogen very different from the typical sources.

The development occurred at a time in Earth's history when primitive lifeforms were trying out lots of different ways to make energy: feeding off of sulfur, iron and carbon compounds because oxygen wasn't yet a major component of the atmosphere. As more plants developed the ability to photosynthesize carbon and give off oxygen, the diversity of life exploded. But some forms held onto their old ways, and continued to exist in strange environments like Washington's Soap Lake, where the water is highly acidic.

Blue Marble and Blank are in the process of confirming an international patent on the discovery, so they can't reveal the details until the paperwork is filed. But the company is already working up methods of using Blank's discovery to produce algae in large enough quantities for a commercially viable operation.

They've moved from test tubes to 2,000-liter bioreactors, lit with glowing rods that can be tuned to mimic virtually any kind of sunlight characteristic on Earth. That makes it possible to make an algae from a Yellowstone National Park hot pot or one from an Ecuadorian jungle feel right at home.

Once produced, the algae pigments can be refined for various shades of food coloring that have no genetic modification or petrochemical basis. Plus, the process consumes large amounts of carbon dioxide, one of the worst greenhouse gases, and releases oxygen as a waste product.

Other products include the kinds of omega-3 oils commonly derived from fish, which themselves produce the oil by consuming the algae. And the spent algae can be sold as a soil treatment for farms.

"We have 26 strains, and we're developing new strains," Blank said. "Each makes different products like oils and pigments. They do different things under different conditions we can use for different industrial applications."

Stephens said in his prospecting for chemical innovations, he's frequently talked with researchers in forestry and pharmaceutical departments, where new product discoveries are common.

"Why would you ever talk to an evolutionary biologist?" he joked. "It's not a traditionally tapped resource."

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