Turning Algae Into Designer Fat Factories

The discovery of enzymes that can selectively attach fatty acids to glycerol paves the way for customizable or designer fats.

AsianScientist (Jan. 15, 2019) – In a study published in Molecular Plant, researchers in China have modified the levels of enzymes in algae to make them produce triacylglycerols with customizable levels of fatty acids.

Triacylglycerols, which consist of three fatty acid molecules joined to a glycerol backbone, are the main constituents of vegetable oil in plants and fats in animals and humans. Triacylglycerols play an important role in cellular metabolism as a form of storage and energy ‘currency.’

The health effect of triacylglycerols is dependent on which fatty acids they are made of. For example, linoleic acid (LA) can lower blood cholesterol and prevent atherosclerosis, while eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) can treat hypertension and inflammation. Both LA and EPA are essential fatty acids that cannot be synthesized by the human body and must be obtained from plant or animal sources.

In the present study, a research team led by Professor Xu Jian from the Qingdao Institute of Bioenergy and Bioprocess Technology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, has discovered two novel enzymes that preferentially attach LA and EPA to the glycerol backbone to form triacylglycerols.

By modulating the ratio of these specialist enzymes in the cell, Xu’s team created a strain bank of the industrial oil-producing microalga Nannochloropsis oceanica where the proportions of LA and EPA in triacylglycerols varied by 18.7- and 34.7-fold, respectively.

The discovery of enzymes that selectively assemble LA and EPA into microalgal triacylglycerols thus lays the foundation for producing ‘designer fats’ that can be tailored for personalized health benefits, the researchers said.

The article can be found at: Xin et al. (2018) Biosynthesis of Triacylglycerol Molecules with Tailored PUFA Profile in Industrial Microalgae.


Source: Chinese Academy of Sciences; Photo: Shutterstock.
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