Algae have proven to be experts in molecular warfare with bacteria – and now is the time to apply that expertise to drug discovery and development.
Andrew Dahl |
Certain algal species have been cultivated in Asia as both a source of nutrition and as a traditional medicine for centuries. What most people don’t realize is that algae range in size from microscopic cells floating in freshwater, to the huge kelp beds off the California coast, and everything in between. The very smallest, as you can imagine, are referred to as microalgae, and most of the green stuff people consider seaweed is technically macroalgae. About 72,000 species of algae are known – and in my view there are probably double that number yet to be discovered and classified. Of that enormous number, only about a dozen are being cultivated commercially anywhere in the world. Algae can be cultivated in natural and artificial ponds, on wooden frames set in estuaries, in photobioreactors and fermentation tanks. There’s plenty of opportunity to cultivate something that has never been grown or consumed by humans or animals, and some of these could be very useful for new pharmaceuticals.
Algae are incapable of movement on their own and are completely exposed to their environment. To regulate their immediate environment and to protect themselves, algae excrete many different types of exogenous secondary metabolites. One of the biggest threats to most forms of algae is dissolved oxygen in the water, which can degrade the cell wall (even though algae produce oxygen as part of photosynthesis and excrete it into the water). One protective measure is to allow certain types of bacteria to form a plaque over the surface of the algae, but not so thick that it prevents light from reaching the algae’s chloroplasts; the bacteria will absorb the oxygen and also produce a clear protective slime that protects both algae and bacteria. However, some bacteria are more aggressive and begin to attack the host algae, which responds with an arsenal of bioactive molecules that can paralyze the bacteria – sometimes killing it altogether – or fool it into thinking there are already too many bacteria on the host algae and, thus, the bacteria stop reproducing.
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