‘Genome Mining’ of Microalgae Teases Secrets Out Of Natural Substances

A team of chemists based at UNCW’s CREST Research Park is doing what we call “genome mining.” Their objective is to understand the underlying chemistry by which microscopic algae produce potentially useful and “biologically active” compounds. Jeffrey Wright, Ph.D., and Wendy Strangman, Ph.D., are two of the faculty scientists leading this project.

So far, in studying blue-green algae found in seawater as well as similar freshwater species, Strangman reports, we have isolated and purified more than 160 new compounds. Not surprisingly, considering that one of the sources is the dinoflagellate that produces the notorious fish-killing “red tide,” a third of these compounds are toxins. Others show signs of being biologically active in more benign and possibly beneficial ways, she explained.

Analyzing the DNA that allows an organism to create one particular molecule often shows us the potential to create other similar compounds that might have very different effects or uses. We refer to those groups of substances that the cell’s DNA could – or should – be making as “cryptic biosynthetic clusters.” That is one way that we can adapt what humble algae produce to help us create entirely new compounds.

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