Microscopic algae hold tremendous potential for addressing societal challenges in a sustainable way. One such challenge is the environmental damage caused by abandoned mines. Water that seeps into the mines is exposed to minerals that turn the water into sulfuric acid, which then leaches toxic metals out of the rocks and carries them into the environment. British Columbia has thousands of abandoned mines contaminating the landscape, but the financial incentive to address this problem is lacking. Algae might provide a solution through their potential to separate toxic metals and as a source of renewable biofuel.
This project looked at the molecular pathways that allow Cyanidioschyzon Merolae, a unicellular algae, to adapt to environmental stress with the objective of being able to engineer this alga to be commercially valuable. Algae were exposed to high and low pH and temperature, various heavy metals, the kinds of nutrient limitation that would be expected in mine drainage, etc. Gene expression changes in response to these stresses was measured. This approach, known as transcriptomics, revealed hundreds of genes that are required for adaptation and growth, and many whose function is unknown.
The team found that under nitrogen limitation, cellular reprogramming led to accumulation of lipid droplets, which are known to be of commercial value. Interestingly, nitrogen limitation, phosphorus limitation, and changes in light intensity all result in increased expression of heat shock proteins. These proteins were originally discovered for their role in helping cells respond to high temperatures, but this observation suggests a more general role in stress response. Algae engineered to express these proteins all the time might adapt more effectively to the harsh conditions of mine waste. With these results, the project can now move forward with engineering these algae to be more efficient at soaking up toxic metals, and to produce larger quantities of biofuels.