PROJECTS

ASTAOMEGA - ERC PROOF OF CONCEPT 2018

This project aims at developing an innovative and commercially competitive production platform for high value products as Astaxanthin and Omega-3, to be used for human nutrition or aquaculture.

Astaxanthin is a pigment primary produced by microalgae: this carotenoid has a strong antioxidant power and it is used in different fields as healthcare, food/feed supplementation and as pigmenting agent in aquaculture. However, cultivation of the main microalgae species producing Astaxanthin is costly due to low biomass productivity or low Astaxanthin content, causing an extremely high price of this molecule on the market.

Marine microalgae are also the primary producers of Omega-3, very long chain fatty acids, essential components of high quality diets for humans, being related to cardiovascular wellness, and proper visual and cognitive development. However, due to the high cost of microalgae cultivation, the market of Omega-3 is mostly based on fish or krill oils, with high costs and environment impacts associated.

New sources of Astaxanthin and Omega-3 must thus be implemented: based on the results obtained in ERC-Stg-SOLENALGAE, an innovative, low cost and high productive strategy can be proposed for simultaneous Astaxanthin and Omega-3 production in the robust and fast growing marine microalgae species Nannochloropsis gaditana.

The main objectives of the ASTAOMEGA project will be:

  1. To validate to a demonstration stage the ASTAOMEGA system
  2. The assessment of the market size and market requirements, through extensive market analysis
  3. The identification of the best suitable commercial route to be undertaken to take the ASTAOMEGA system to the market, as inception of a spin-off company and/or the licensing agreements on the IPR exploitation with the interested end-users.

The ASTAOMEGA team is confident that the outcomes of this project are poised to exert a beneficial impact on the European microalgae industry and nutraceuticals market

DEVELOPMENT OF AN INNOVATIVE AGRICULTURAL SYSTEM THROUGH VERTICAL FARMING BASED ON ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE - FSE 2018

The research project is funded by the Regione Veneto within the FSE (Fondo Sociale Europeo) program and involves the collaboration between SOLE-LAB, the University of Trieste through the research group "Ecophysiology of plants” and the companies TORMEC AMBROSI srl and ALGAIN ENERGY srl. The research project aims to develop and implement an innovative and sustainable plant crop production system through "vertical farming", a revolutionary system of cultivation of agricultural plants, enhancing abandoned or non-cultivable land exploited vertically through different layers of cultivation. This innovative cultivation system meets the need for new models of sustainable development for the "agriculture of the future" called agriculture 4.0: zero soil, zero km, zero water, zero pesticides that guarantees more production, less waste, more safety, quality and sustainability. The possibility of developing a controlled and precision system for the cultivation of important crops for the

agri-food sector responds to various needs including the need to develop efficient systems for organic production of food products, the possibility of cultivating certain varieties in contexts of unfavorable climatic conditions and the recovery of decommissioned buildings (industrial archeology) to be used for the zero-km production of agri-food products.

Migalgae - FARE 2016 grant

The increase of the population on our planet, the consumption of fossil energy reserves and the concomitant increase in the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere are challenges that our society must deal urgently and that will be more and more pressing in the coming years. The most abundant source of renewable energy on our planet is the sun's energy that can be exploited for food and/or biofuels production through the photosynthetic process. The increase in photosynthetic efficiency can be therefore considered as one of the leading biotechnology research target to increase the light energy conversion efficiency. Among photosynthetic organisms with the higher photosynthetic yield are microalgae, photosynthetic unicellular organisms that can be grown in closed containers (photobioreactors) or tanks in fields not suitable for agriculture by using waste products such as derivatives of wastewater treatment and flue gas as nutrients. However, the cultivation of microalgae has yet to reach its production potential: while the theoretical photosynthetic efficiency should be above 10%, values of 3% were scored in the best growing conditions. One of the main causes for this reduction in productivity is due to the fact that these organisms at medium-low light intensity conditions immediately activate photoprotective mechanisms causing a thermal dissipation of the excitation energy, dissipating up to 80% of the absorbed light energy. As demonstrated recently (Berteotti et al. 2016), it is possible to increase productivity in microalgae by adjusting the induction of these photoprotective mechanisms to a minimum value. While the ERC SOLENALGAE project has as main aim to characterize these photoprotective mechanisms and to experimentally verify in different microalgae strains the relationship between photoprotective thermal dissipation and productivity through random insertional mutagenesis, this MIGALGAE project integrates the experimental plan described in the ERC project with the development of a "genome editing" system for the specific knock-out of some genes putatively involved in these dissipative mechanisms. In particular, the genome editing system CRISPR/CAS9 will be applied to indifferent species of microalgae of industrial interest such as Chlorella vulgaris, Haematococcus pluvialis and Nannochloropsis gaditana in order to obtain mutant strains with improved productivity due to the reduction of thermal dissipation of the absorbed light. The ability to target the CAS9 nuclease towards specific genes by the introduction of an RNA guide (gRNA) allows indeed to induce mutations in specific genes, thus allowing a direct genetic approach for the biotechnological manipulation of microalgae to improve their productive performances.

Ocaralgae: Industrial production of Omega-3 and carotenoids by microalgae cultivation

Omega-3 and carotenoids are high value products with several applications and use at industrial level. These compounds indeed can be used as food additives to improve health or as nutraceutical. In addition, carotenoids can be also used for aquaculture or as natural pigments. Omega-3 and carotenoids are produced by microalgae cultures. Microalgae are photosynthetic organisms that are able to convert CO2 and sunlight into organic biomass. These organisms have peculiar metabolisms allowing them to produce high levels of compounds as lipids (with omega-3 as fatty acids in some conditions) or carotenoids as astaxanthin, the natural compound with the highest antioxidant activity. Microalgae cultivation however still needs to be improved at industrial scale in order to reduce costs and improve productivity. The present project aims to improve the production of omega-3 and carotenoids in cultures of the marine algae by combining biotechnological manipulation and efficient cultivation system developed by the Partner company ALGAE-TECH IP BV.

Enhancing production of biofuels and high valuable products in unicellular algae - PRIN 2012

Algae are interesting organisms for the production of biofuels such as biodiesel but also for the synthesis of molecules of industrial interest such as carotenoids and lipids. Even if this potential is now recognized by the scientific community, in order to fully exploit it, it is essential to have a deeper understanding of the metabolism of these organisms and the optimization of systems for their large-scale cultivation. To achieve this, a multi-disciplinary approach is indispensable and for this reason the integration of different skills is the basis of this project. The first fundamental aspect to be studied is the influence of light conditions on the photosynthetic efficiency of algae. Different species of algae will be analyzed under different light conditions to study how these affect the growth kinetics and the photosynthesis regulation mechanisms. A second aim is to select algae strains where composition and regulation of the photosynthetic apparatus is optimized for growth in a photobioreactor. In these artificial systems, in fact, growth conditions are different from those to which algae are naturally adapted. Therefore, photosynthesis adjustment mechanisms in a photobioreactor are likely not to be optimal. The third aim of the work is to optimize the mixotrophic growth conditions of certain species of interest for the production of biofuels and/or molecules with high added value. The heterotrophic use of organic substrates as additional sources of carbon and energy can in fact help increase growth. One of the main goals of the research is to understand how autotrophic and heterotrophic metabolisms interact with the cell and identify the conditions in which efficient use of organic substrates is coupled to good photosynthetic efficiency. Finally, the experimental data obtained will be used for the development of predictive computational models of the photobioreactor, a fundamental resource for system design. The models will be based on a rigorous description of the phenomena considered in this project and will be validated experimentally. The first objective to be pursued is to describe the influence of the lighting environment on photosynthetic productivity of algae to identify usage optimization strategies both during design and operation. An analogous approach will be pursued to analyze the effect of nutrient availability in autotrophic, mixotrophic or mixed growth regimes.