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Award to enable scale-up of valuable blue dye

dried spirulina powder

The ability to mass produce a high-value natural blue dye for use in the food, pharmaceutical and other industries is being developed with help from SynthSys researchers, Drs Baojun Wang and Alistair McCormick, in a partnership with Scottish Bioenergy.

The team will work on scaling the ability to produce large quantities of a blue pigment-protein, called C-phycocyanin (C-PC), which is derived from spirulina algae and is the preferred source of natural blue colourant for industry. It is sought after to replace artificial colourants like Brilliant Blue, which are unpopular with consumers and have led global brands to commit to removing all artificial colourants from their products. Global demand for natural blue dye is expected to increase ten-fold in the next two years from the food industry alone, to a market worth about £350 million.

A £200,000 award from the Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre (IBioIC) will boost a research partnership between the industrial biotech company Scottish Bioenergy and SynthSys researchers to develop a large-scale process to extract C-PC from the spirulina. Natural blue dyes are challenging to create as there are few sources of blue pigment in the natural world, and formulations are difficult and expensive to create in large quantities.

Scottish Bioenergy, which specialises in commercial production of C-PC, has been working with experts in the University’s School of Biological Sciences on collaborative projects since 2012. The partnership has been accelerated by ongoing support from Edinburgh Research & Innovation (ERI), the University’s commercialisation and industry engagement arm.

The company has recently overcome important technical obstacles and challenges linked to the scale of production.

In this latest project, funded by IBioIC’s Micro Accelerator Programme, the team will identify and optimise techniques for extracting the pigment protein, and to develop economically feasible methods for producing large volumes of C-PC. They will also engineer strains of bacteria to produce high yield and high purity C-PC.

Image: Spirulina (dietary supplement) powder made from cyanobacteria genus Arthrospira, credit Music4TheKids CC-BY-SA-3.0