Using synthetic biology to develop natural sunscreen compounds from algae


The project will employ synthetic biology to investigate, manipulate and optimise production of Mycosporine-like Amino Acids (MAAs). These are a group of naturally-occurring compounds, found in cyanobacteria, micro- and macro-algae, that absorb damaging UV-A and UV-B radiation. They protect the host organism and are of great interest from a biotechnological perspective as ingredients for natural UV protection. MAAs show excellent photochemical stability compared to petrochemically derived alternatives such as avobenzone, which require regular re-application. There is also evidence these secondary metabolites have anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial activities. MAAs therefore have broad potential applications.

Gene clusters responsible for the production of MAAs all contain core genes encoding enzymes that give rise to the basic ‘core’ MAA molecule, mycosporine glycine (MG). Additional enzymes present in the cluster modify MG and give rise to MAA species that each have different properties of stability, UV absorbance maxima, etc. The role of these accessory genes is unknown for most MAA clusters. MAA gene clusters can be transferred to heterologous hosts, such as E. coli, potentially enabling the production of MAAs through industrial fermentation processes. However, currently, only low MAA levels are produced.

Synthetic biology aims to bring an engineering approach to molecular biology by standardising functional DNA parts, processes and cloning techniques through increased automation. By utilising the GeneMill facility at Liverpool, a BBSRC DNA Foundry, synthetic biology will be applied to construct, express, re-engineer and optimise bespoke MAA gene clusters, exploring and exploiting the natural variation identified by genome mining.

Objective 1: Characterise the accessory genes in MAA gene clusters in order to fully understand and manipulate MAA biosynthesis.

Objective 2: Optimise MAA production by manipulating the pathway constructs, screening and optimising hosts.

This project will provide training in a variety of molecular genetic and biochemical techniques, involving collaboration with colleagues in chemistry and interactions with biotechnology companies.

The project is suited to a student with at least a good B.Sc. Upper Second in Biological or Life Sciences (particularly microbiology, genetics, molecular biology or biochemistry).

To apply for this opportunity, please .      


Open to students worldwide

Funding information

Self-funded project

The project is open to both European/UK and International students. It is UNFUNDED and applicants are encouraged to contact the Principal Supervisor directly to discuss their application and the project.

Assistance will be given to those who are applying to international funding schemes.

The successful applicant will be expected to provide the funding for tuition fees and living expenses as well as research costs of £7000 per year.

A fee bursary may be available for well qualified and motivated applicants.

Details of costs can be found on the University website.  



The Genetic and Molecular Basis for Sunscreen Biosynthesis in Cyanobacteria E. P. Balskus and C. T. Walsh (2010) DOI: 10.1126/science.1193637

Photosynthetic Production of Sunscreen Shinorine Using an Engineered Cyanobacterium
Guang Yang, Monica A. Cozad, Destin A. Holland, Yi Zhang, Hendrik Luesch, and Yousong Ding
ACS Synthetic Biology 2018 7 (2), 664-671

Mycosporine-Like Amino Acids and Their Derivatives as Natural Antioxidants.
Wada N, Sakamoto T, Matsugo S.
Antioxidants. 2015;4(3):603-646. 


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