Algae is the key to unlock billion dollar industries

Some of the world’s leading scientists are rubbing shoulders with experts at the University of Abertay Dundee to study tiny plant-like organisms that could unlock billion dollar industries for Europe.

Representatives from famous European universities and research centres, including the renowned Pasteur Institute in Paris and the Czech Academy of Sciences, are putting algae under the microscope in a project considered so important by the EU that it has been given a 1.75m Euro grant (around £1m).

Despite their small size, scientists have big plans for the little “living resources” which can have hundreds of applications, from being used in health foods to testing for poisons in water.

However, many strains have proved difficult to exploit because their fragile structures break up when cryogenically frozen, making it hard to conserve stocks for study.

Now, Abertay is taking a leading role in Europe’s attempt to grab a slice of the international market in a three-year long program named COBRA (COnservation of a vital european specific and Biotechnological Resource: micro Algae and cyanobacteria) which will see Europe’s best Algal experts merge minds for the first time ever.

COBRA Co-ordinator John Day, curator of the UK’s internationally respected Culture Collection of Algae and Protozoa at Windemere, said UAD had been invited to help lead the study because of its renowned international reputation.

He explained: “The first phase of COBRA will see the project partners being trained in the latest cryopreservation techniques. The University of Abertay is known the world over for its international training experience in cryopreservation and was the obvious choice for this stage.

“The University’s Dr Erica Benson is also a leading light in cryopreservation and her decades of experience will be invaluable in her role as Assistant Co-ordinator as we begin to unravel the mysteries of these fascinating organisms.”

Dr Benson, Reader in Plant Conservation at Abertay’s School of Science and Engineering stressed the importance of their work to a wide variety of Europe’s industries.

She said: “Algae are one of the most important groups of organisms on Earth and are increasingly used in the healthcare, environmental and biotechnology industries. In Japan, the harvest of Nori algae is worth US$1bn alone.

“The future expansion of Europe’s industries is dependent on our ability to preserve and study algae so we can use them to greater effect.”

“COBRA will provide exciting opportunities to develop new methods of algal conservation and will enhance our understanding of algal molecular biology, stress physiology and biochemistry.”

Key to spreading the knowledge gained during COBRA will be the “virtual library” being designed by Abertay’s School of Computing & Information Services. It will feature digital images, videos of procedures and allow transfer of knowledge to locations thousands of miles apart.

Dr Benson commented: “The website will allow us to share expertise from one easily accessible resource.

“For example, work carried out in Dundee can be filmed and viewed by scientists in Portugal and Germany without them ever having to leave the lab. This will not only speed up our research but ensure that all of Europe has access to the best of our knowledge.”

Head of Abertay’s School of Science and Engineering, Professor John Palfreyman said the University was proud to have been invited to join such an elite group of scientists, reflecting the strength of teaching available to students at the University.

He commented: “Our involvement in COBRA is confirmation that the international scientific community considers our staff and facilities to be amongst the best in the world.”

“We will be host to colleagues from the Pasteur Institute, Germany’s University of Goettingen, Portugal’s Universidade de Coimbra, the UK’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, the Czech Republic’s Academy of Sciences and a key European biotechnology company, Aquaartis.

“The involvement of UAD in this project is confirmation that the university
contains the top Environmental Sciences research unit in the Scottish
University sector as determined by the Scottish Higher education Funding
Council in their recent Research Assessment exercise (RAE).”

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