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Why do algae stuff hydrocarbons into their cell membranes

10/04/19

An international team of scientists, led by Dr David Lea-Smith at the School of Biological Sciences at UEA, has been awarded a US$1.2 million grant to investigate the cellular role of hydrocarbons produced by cyanobacteria and some algal species.

The Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP), which awarded the grant, funds cutting edge research on understanding complex mechanisms in living organisms. It is highly competitive, with less than 4% of applications funded in 2019.

The hydrocarbons produced by algae and by photosynthetic microbes called cyanobacteria are similar to the chemical compounds found in diesel. These organisms produce vast quantities of these hydrocarbons in the ocean, up to 800 million tonnes per annum. This is equivalent to approximately 20% of annual crude oil production.

Luckily, these hydrocarbons are consumed by other bacteria living in the oceans. These bacteria are already known to have consumed the alkane components of petroleum released during ecological catastrophes such as the Exxon Valdez tanker spill and the Deepwater Horizon blowout.

Members of the research team recently found that hydrocarbons accumulate inside the cyanobacterial and algal cell membrane – the layer of fatty molecules that encases cells. The reason why cyanobacterial and algal cells would accumulate hydrocarbons inside their membranes is not understood but the team predicts it may promote membrane flexibility and curvature, which are essential for cell growth and division, and for packing the photosynthetic machinery into the cell.

Dr Lea-Smith says ‘Understanding how hydrocarbons interact with membranes is key for developing microbes to produce renewable biofuels, which is becoming more critical due to concerns about fossil fuel usage and release of carbon dioxide into the environment’.

The team also foresees applications of the knowledge in controlling the engineering of artificial cells via membrane modification. These have a number of medical applications, including delivery of drugs, enzymes to counteract metabolic diseases, and gene therapy.

These artificial cells can also be used to encapsulate activated charcoal that can absorb and remove toxic substances from the blood in case of accidental poisoning or overdose.

The research team will use a wide range of experimental and computational methods to understand the role of hydrocarbons.

The team also includes Dr Oscar Ces, Professor in Chemistry at Imperial College London, Jane Allison, Associate Professor at the University of Aucklandand Dr Melissa Sharp, a chemist at the European Spallation Source in Sweden.

Further details on Lea-Smith’ research are outlined