Public Release: 

The potential in your pond

Scientists at the John Innes Centre have discovered that Euglena gracilis, the single cell algae which inhabits most garden ponds, has a whole host of new, unclassified genes which can make new forms of carbohydrates and natural products

John Innes Centre

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IMAGE: Scientists at the John Innes Centre have discovered that Euglena gracilis, the single cell algae which inhabits most garden ponds, has a whole host of new, unclassified genes which can... view more

Credit: The John Innes Centre

Scientists at the John Innes Centre have discovered that Euglena gracilis, the single cell algae which inhabits most garden ponds, has a whole host of new, unclassified genes which can make new forms of carbohydrates and natural products.

Even with the latest technologies, sequencing all the DNA in Euglena remains a complex and longwinded undertaking. Dr Ellis O'Neill and Professor Rob Field from the John Innes Centre in Norwich have therefore sequenced the transcriptome of Euglena gracilis, which provides information about all of the genes that the organism is actively using. From this analysis of its RNA molecules, Professor Field and his team projected that Euglenah as at least 32,000 active, protein encoding genes, significantly more than humans who have approximately 21,000.

They discovered that Euglena has the genetic information to make many different natural compounds: we simply don't yet know what they are or what they can do. Nearly 60% of the active genes don't match those found in any other organism studied to date, suggesting that there is much to learn about the biology of Euglena.

The team also found that different sets of genes become active when Euglena is grown in the dark to when it is grown in the light. This indicates that Euglena can dramatically shift its metabolism depending on its environment, which reflects its' ability to live successfully in very varied environments.

Euglena creates many well-known, valuable natural products including vitamins, essential amino acids and a sugar polymer which is reported to have anti-HIV effects. Given the usefulness of the compounds we know about, these findings have the potential, with further research, to lead to the discovery of new medicines including new antibiotics, nutrients and new forms of biofuel - amongst other products.

The genetic information in what we think of as simple algae is in fact enormous, which complicates definition of what these organism are capable of and has prompted the science community to largely focus of simpler microorganisms (bacteria, fungi, viruses).

Undeterred by this challenge, the JIC team identified candidate genes in the Euglena transcriptome for all the pathways and metabolic processes that one would expect in a motile, photosynthetic organism. They also discovered unexpected capacity for producing and modifying carbohydrate polymers and the generation of as-yet unknown natural products. Professor Field and his team now look to the scientific community to help classify these new products and determine how they may be used.

Professor Field said:

"We know there are many products made from Euglena which are already on the market - beauty and nutritional supplements, foods and even fuel for cars - all popular in Japan and the Far East. What we didn't realise is that there is so much more that Euglena is capable of producing which could give us new treatments, cures and industrial capabilities. We hope this landmark research will encourage other scientists to build on our findings with Euglena, and other algae, to work out exactly what compounds they make and how we can use them."

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This research was funded by the BBSRC's institute strategic funding programme grant on understanding metabolism and the John Innes Foundation.

Notes to editors

1. The paper 'The transcriptome of Euglena gracilis reveals unexpected metabolic capabilities for carbohydrate and natural product biochemistry' is published in Molecular Biosystems.

2. If you would like to interview Professor Field please contact:

Geraldine Platten
Communications Manager
John Innes Centre
t: 01603 450 238
e: geraldine.platten@jic.ac.uk

3. Images to accompany this press release can be found at: http://bit.ly/1TxkkSi

4. About the John Innes Centre

Our mission is to generate knowledge of plants and microbes through innovative research, to train scientists for the future, to apply our knowledge of nature's diversity to benefit agriculture, the environment, human health and wellbeing, and engage with policy makers and the public.

To achieve these goals we establish pioneering long-term research objectives in plant and microbial science, with a focus on genetics. These objectives include promoting the translation of research through partnerships to develop improved crops and to make new products from microbes and plants for human health and other applications. We also create new approaches, technologies and resources that enable research advances and help industry to make new products. The knowledge, resources and trained researchers we generate help global societies address important challenges including providing sufficient and affordable food, making new products for human health and industrial applications, and developing sustainable bio-based manufacturing.

This provides a fertile environment for training the next generation of plant and microbial scientists, many of whom go on to careers in industry and academia, around the world.

The John Innes Centre is strategically funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). In 2013-2014 the John Innes Centre received a total of £31.4 million from the BBSRC.

About the BBSRC

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.

Funded by Government, BBSRC invested over £509M in world-class bioscience in 2014-15. We support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.

For more information about BBSRC, our science and our impact see: http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk

For more information about BBSRC strategically funded institutes see: http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk/institutes

About the John Innes Foundation

The John Innes Foundation (JIF) is an independent charity formed in 1910 following a bequest from John Innes, a landowner in the City of London.

John Innes Foundation trustees play an active part in the management of the John Innes Centre (JIC) and have the right to appoint three members of its Governing Council. The trustees also provide direct support for JIC's research and training, principally through sponsorship of several graduate studentships each year, and by their support for educational programmes and the infrastructure of the site.

The trustees also support the study of the history of genetics and plant science; and the Foundation owns a very significant collection of archive material, the History of Genetics Library, and the "Special Collection" of rare botanical books.

For more on the historic collections, visit collections.jic.ac.uk

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