Can cannabinoids be grown in algae? Yes — according to Mitacs-supported research team

“This project is constantly evolving, which keeps me motivated. It is a practical application of theoretical knowledge”

Professor Isabel Desgagné-Penix and her team at the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières are the first to demonstrate that cannabinoids can be successfully grown in microalgae by a process called metabolic engineering.

The process of metabolic engineering extracts the genes responsible for cannabinoid production from cannabis plants and inserts them into algae, creating a type of cannabis surrogacy in algae.

This game-changing work is being done in collaboration with Algae-C, the largest algae biosynthetic research company in North America. They are preparing to move Professor Desgagné-Penix’s research to large-scale testing for commercialization.

This collaboration began with a successful six-month small-scale production of a cannabinoid precursor in microalgae. In order to advance to the next step, the research required more equipment, resources, funding and talent. Thus, the collaboration with Mitacs began through the Accelerate program, through which a cluster of postdoctoral students have been leading this research in collaboration with Algae-C.

“This project is constantly evolving, which keeps me motivated. It is a practical application of theoretical knowledge,” says Nikunj Sharma, one of the research interns.

Together with her team of Mitacs-funded interns, Desgagné-Penix has demonstrated that her team can isolate and produce cannabinoids in algae in the lab.

What is the impact of this type of cannabinoid production?

Because the metabolic engineering process requires less light, nutrients, and space than traditionally grown cannabis, it reduces the environmental footprint. And because the metabolic engineering process requires fewer resources to produce and reduces input costs, the process should ultimately lower the price of cannabinoids, making them — and their potential pharmaceutical benefits — more accessible to a wider audience.

Desgagné-Penix has also been able to witness the valuable impact that this collaboration has had on her team of researchers, outside of the scope of the actual cannabinoid production.

Value of a work-integrated learning partnership

“The researchers are having a great experience. It’s a completely hands-on experience at Algae-C. The CEO of Algae-C, Mather Carscallen, PhD, visits often and is very close to the team. The students are constantly exposed to the unique pressures of working within the industry. Every week we have team meetings and the researchers hear what’s going on at the company outside of their research, from purchasing to funding. It is truly a wonderful collaboration between industry and academia.”

Carscallen, who has plans to build a new research facility in the coming year, echoes these sentiments, saying “The project couldn’t be going better. We are far ahead of schedule, and that is solely due to the hard work and dedication that Isabel and her team put in. They are a very special team of researchers and we are lucky to have been able to collaborate with them through Mitacs. This project and our company wouldn’t be anywhere near where we are without this Mitacs partnership.”

Whenever a milestone in the project is reached, the mood is celebratory and the team will often mark the occasion by going out for dinner with the CEO of Algae-C, who will congratulate them on their hard work. As Desgagné-Penix says, “Whether you’re an undergrad or a PhD student, this recognition and celebration is so formative. It gives them the energy to keep going.”

Desgagné-Penix’s team of student interns returned this recognition by successfully nominating her for the 2019 Mitacs Award for Exceptional Leadership — Professor. The students wrote letters of nomination that spoke of their professor being a role model in the community, a term that Desgagné-Penix is quick to dismiss.

Leading by example

“I don’t feel like a role model. I only know my story and that story is that it was not a straight path to university or academic research. I always thought researchers looked like Einstein — white men in lab coats. I thought ‘those are the real scientists!’. It took people believing in me and mentoring me to show me that I also had a place in academia. I am trying to be that mentor for others now, and to show them that they too have a place.”

Desgagné-Penix is doing exactly that at the upcoming Aboriginal Science Fair in Quebec, where Grade 5 to Grade 12 students from Indigenous communities all over the province showcase their science projects at different universities. The goal is to promote post-secondary study — science specifically — to First Nations and Inuit communities in Quebec.

“It’s amazing to see how excited the students get,” says Desgagné-Penix. “They have fire in their eyes.”

When asked what she is most excited about with regards to her project with Algae-C, Desgagné-Penix’s answer is simple.

“To be at the forefront of science, and to have the means, the support, and the resources to do that science is incredibly exciting. All my students are working on something very significant, and they see right away where their work is going. It’s a very exciting time for all of us.

Mitacs is funded by the Government of Canada, the Government of Alberta, The Government of British Colombia, Research Manitoba, the Government of New Brunswick, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Government of Nova Scotia, the Government of Ontario, Innovation PEI, the Government of Quebec, the Government of Saskatchewan.

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