New green technology discovery may boost economic growth
While everyone else is roaming Facebook on the Internet, University of Montana Research Assistant Professor Carrine Blank peruses the online public records of microbial genomes. Blank studies the co-evolution of Earth and early life, which is not an easy task. The single-celled organisms she looks at don’t have fossil records because they’re too small. And because they first evolved in the Precambrian age — before larger plants, animals and fungi — there’s no fossil record with which to correlate them.
For that reason, Blank studies the organism’s genome sequences to reconstruct an evolutionary history of their traits. And, recently, her curiosity for Earth’s most primitive life-forms led her to an incredible discovery: an array of biomass that can be used for everything from food coloring to waste-water cleanup to biofuel. And it needs nothing more to grow but light and abandoned crab or lobster shells.
The big discovery started with a tiny clue. While scanning cyanobacterium (formerly called blue-green algae) genomes, Blank noticed that some of them contained genes with the properties for degrading chitin. Chitin is the crunchy material made by crustaceans present in large quantities in the ocean. It’s a fast-growing sugar-based polymer, the second-most abundant on the planet, and it would never degrade on its own, except for the microorganisms that break it down and keep it from accumulating. That trait made Blank curious. To prove her hypothesis that these organisms could use chitin as a sole nitrogen source, she tried an experiment.
“I did something remarkably simple,” she says. “I took chitin and put it in some cultures and put it under the light. And, lo and behold, we got a whole suite of these organisms that do photosynthesis. There’s a nitrogen compound that hangs off the polymer, and these guys are using it as their only nitrogen source. And that’s totally new.”
In a laboratory in UM’s Clapp Building, Blank cultivates a garden of test tubes. She collects lake water, sea water, soil and sea salts — anything that contains algae or cyanobacteria. She has some strains from the Bitterroot River and others that her students brought back during Christmas break from places such as Cape Cod. Another came from sea salt bought at Missoula’s Good Food Store.
In the lab, Blank inoculates them into growth media that contains no other nitrogen sources but chitin. Each sample grows a mixed consortium of organisms, and Blank isolates each one to study them individually. The results show a diversity of organisms that can subsist without anything but chitin and light — no harmful fossil fuels or severely processed chemicals. These primitive organisms are at the heart of life on Earth.
“This is where oxygen came from, so these are very important,” Blank says. “Some of them are diatoms; some of them are cyanobacteria; some are green algae. So they’re different groups of organisms, and each one of them has different properties.”
The properties have intriguing applications. One jar shows a bright pink organism, while another is bright green from making so much chlorophyll. Both, Blank says, could be refined for natural pigment. Others produce anticancer compounds that also contain the properties of natural UV sunscreen. Blank and Nancy Hinman, a geosciences professor whose laboratory Blank works in, realized they had something relevant to the commercial world. They applied for a patent, even while still trying to grasp both the biological and commercial implications of what they had on their hands. And they started seeking a way to test the organisms as marketable products.
It’s been a strange experience for Blank.
“It’s just been something that was completely unexpected,” she says. “Why hasn’t anyone noticed this before? It boggles my mind, too.”
James Stephens had sworn off algae for good. “There’s so many issues with it,” he says. “There are lots of players in the space; there’s lots of smoke and mirrors.”
A 2002 UM graduate with degrees in microbiology and medical technology, Stephens was interested in combining environmental remediation with producing usable bioproducts. By day
he worked at biotech and pharmaceutical companies, and by night he worked on his passion: partnering with Kelly Ogilvie to study growing algae for biomass. They eventually started a company called Blue Marble Biomaterials.
“We came together, and we looked at it, and we designed this really fancy engineered photobioreactor that did super critical methanol extraction to produce biodiesel — and we realized it was not economical at all,” he says. “There’s no way you’d ever make money with it, ever, unless oil hit $1,000 a barrel.”
They tried to make it more economical by harvesting wild algae blooms that were wreaking havoc on water systems to make them into various products. But the regulations for harvesting wild algae made the operation prohibitive. So they decided to head in an entirely different direction.
They started working on jet fuel made from woody biomass, waste brewery grain and other feedstocks. This fuel was chemically identical to one of the main constituents of blueberry flavoring.
After a presentation on their new “biofuel” at a conference, a member of the Mars family approached Stephens. “You know that that same chemical is worth $800/kg in the flavor industry, right?” he said. Stephens replied, “Well, we do now!”
That was a pivotal point. However romantic the jet fuel industry felt, the world of food flavorings and cosmeceuticals suddenly seemed more promising. Stephens and Ogilvie started work on various products and sought to set up a company in Missoula. It was around that time that Stephens first heard about Blank’s work with algae. Skeptical at first, he grew less so as he read about how these organisms could grow economically in a laboratory. He contacted Blank and Hinman and procured some bioreactors from algae company Bionavitas. They moved Blue Marble to Missoula and began looking at how photosynthetic chitin-devouring organisms could, among other things, make colorful, nice-smelling products to send to market.
The inside of Blue Marble is flooded with sweet and savory fragrances. The chemical company on the outskirts of Missoula feels vibrant. A small office leads to a laboratory where people work with jars of strange-looking compounds. The backroom is like a small warehouse of huge metal tanks with tubes leading to glass jars of clear bubbling liquids. This laboratory, which went under construction last April and started production in August, is where some of Blank’s algae strains are being grown in 2,000-liter bioreactors and turned into products such as fragrances, pigments and food flavorings.
Some are completely unexpected. For instance, if you oxidize Zeaxanthin, which can be found in some algae, it makes the flavor of saffron.
“Normally saffron is harvested from little crocus stamens in India,” says Stephens. “But if you can make saffron flavor from algae in Montana, that’s kind of an odd thing to think about: Montana potentially being able to become a spice resource for the world.”
The first image of Earth from space was dubbed the “blue marble,” and Stephens says the inspiration to name his company after that is a reminder of our finite natural resources. To that end, the company’s closed-loop production system is important, and the newly discovered ancient algae are a big part of that. Algae pull phosphorous out of the water after the fermentation process so the water can be reused.
“And after the algae are done growing, you separate the algae from the water and you have perfectly clean water that can go back into the fermenter. So we’re a net producer of water.”
And there are larger ideas on the horizon that could impact environmental cleanup. If algae are used outside of the company to clean up wastewater or mine sites, the algae can be brought to Blue Marble, the toxic compounds can be stripped out, and the newly cleaned algae can be turned into products.
“You remove metals from water and you’re able to produce products from it to offset those costs,” Stephens says. “Now you’re starting to talk about a paradigm change.”
Now that they’ve put in an application for an international patent, Blank and Hinman will publish a paper to demonstrate the diversity of organisms they’ve been able to grow on chitin. That paper is bound to be controversial, Blank says.
“We still don’t understand the process, so there will be a lot of doubters out there,” she says. “There is going to be a lot of scrutiny, a lot of questions.”
In the science world, the discovery of these organisms puts into question some long-held notions. “Nobody knew that these organisms could use chitin as a nitrogen source. So, basically that means that there are new connections we have to make with nitrogen cycling and the ocean and carbon, and how these (organisms) are a part of that cycle.”
As a form of biomass, the promise of these organisms will be held up to a microscope for their place in the alternative energy realm. Once the organisms are tested on larger scales, issues such as transportation and other environmental impacts will need to be taken into account.
Blank currently works with a company called AlgEvolve to pull phosphorous from pulp mill water using the algae she grows. Like mine cleanup, the algae can remediate an environmental sore spot and then be cleaned and repurposed for products.
She believes that the biggest opportunity her discovery holds is with biofuels.
“We’ve been at peak oil for a number of years now, and the price is just going to keep going up and up. So, what that means is that we as a society have to transition to other forms of an easily transportable fuel source.”
It’s a long road ahead, but an exciting one. Blank and Hinman need to apply for grants to demonstrate that this biomass can be produced in a commercial way. They need more partners. They need investors to fund research and development. They need more scientists willing to work on genome sequencing that will help them better understand these organisms.
For now, the possibilities seem as diverse as the organisms.
“There’s huge amounts of this chitin that’s harvested all around by the shellfish industry, and they put it in a landfill,” Blank says. “We have this big opportunity. It’s a novel nitrogen source that we didn’t know existed. It’s carbon neutral. It’s one we can harvest on a sustainable basis. And, right now, it’s free.”
— By Erika Fredrickson
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