Above: Algae Experiment (©iStockphoto.com/busypix)

Many diseases are caused by an inability to produce a particular protein or by a nonfunctioning protein. A common disease that fits into this category is diabetes, which is caused by a lack of insulin. Insulin is a protein hormone which regulates blood glucose (blood sugar). Without insulin, the body is unable to use the sugars (carbohydrates) it ingests, leading to many serious problems. Through a process called pharming, algae may provide a more efficient way of producing insulin and other proteins for pharmaceutical use.

Did you know? Using algae to produce human proteins is much cheaper because algae are photosynthetic. That means they generate energy from sunlight and require very few other nutrients.For the past 30 years, insulin has been made using bacterial cells. But taking care of these cells can be very costly. The process would be much less expensive using algae—yes, that gross green stuff—since they grow faster and don’t require as much attention. Even if the necessary techniques have still not been perfected, the use of algae to produce human proteins remains a very promising possibility.

Using algae to produce human proteins is called “pharming.” No, that's not a spelling mistake! The term is actually a combination of “farming” (growing algae) and “pharmaceuticals” (the proteins or other medicines produced). Scientists begin the process by inserting a human gene into the genome of host cells. These could be animal or plant cells, so long as they don’t already contain the human gene being inserted. The host cells’ inner machinery can then be used to produce proteins according to the inserted human gene.

Compared to bacteria, algae can produce a wider range of human proteins. To be useful as pharmaceuticals, some proteins need to have the correct three-dimensional structure. In other words, they need to “fold” properly in order to work. Cells from plants and animals, including algae, are capable of creating these protein structures, whereas bacteria cannot.

Did you know? Modifying an organism’s genome by inserting a gene that is not normally present is called genetic engineering (GE). The organism that receives the new gene is called a genetically modified organism (GMO).Like bacteria, but unlike mammalian cells, algae can be grown in large bioreactors. These devices make it possible to produce proteins in bulk, a major reason why using algae to make human proteins may prove very cost-effective. Another benefit of using algae is that it is immune to viruses that harm mammalian cells, because of differences in cell properties.

By this point, you must be wondering exactly what kinds of proteins can be produced using algae. The truth is there is that the process of using algae to make human proteins has not been perfected, and a lot of research still needs to be conducted.

There have been some success stories. For example, genetically engineered algae has been used to produce human growth hormone, which can be used to treat children with growth disorders and adults with growth hormone deficiency. Algae have also been used to create antibodies, which are used in the treatment of many immune diseases, as well as in vaccine production.

So who knows what that gross green stuff will be capable of next!

Learn More! Algae Collaboration Develping Therapeutic Proteins (Bruce V. Bigalow, Algae Industry Magazine)

http://www.algaeindustrymagazine.com/algae-collaboration-developing-therapeutic-proteins/ Green Algae as a Platform to Express Therapeutic Proteins (Yang Lu, Discovery Medicine)


Haley McConkey

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