Novel Regulator of Algal Lipid Metabolism and Cellular Quiescence and Its Applications




Algae typically accumulate valuable compounds under conditions that are unfavorable to growth. For example nutrient starvation causes accumulation of triacylglycerols (oil), but also induces cellular quiescence, a “pause” stage where algae stop growing and reproducing.  This leads to a problematic inverse relationship between biomass productivity and triacylglycerol accumulation (i.e. in order to produce triacylglycerol, algae growth needs to stop).  It has long been a goal of bioengineers to overcome this inverse relationship.  Researchers have been seeking ways to cause oil to accumulate under regular growth conditions, but the results to date have not been commercially applicable.  The discovery of the CHT7 protein that controls the transition between normal algae growth and quiescence provides the mechanistic insights to overcome this inverse problem, allowing algae to be engineered to accumulate oil during growth nutrient-replete conditions when large amounts of biomass accumulate, thereby increasing algae productivity.


Quiescent cells are also found in plants and animals. Thus, understanding how algae CHT7 affects the exit out of quiescence promises to provide important insights into the regulation of cellular behavior in multicellular organisms as well. Current cancer drugs target the biological functions required for cell division or viability, and thus cause collateral damage to normal cells while limiting or stopping the cancerous growth. Our experimental data show that the loss of CHT7 prevents quiescent cells from regrowing, but the cells are completely viable.  This suggests the CHT7 human homologue is a superb drug target.


Description of Technology


This technology uncovers a new strategy to engineer algal cells by altering levels of CHT7, which allows them to grow and divide under oil-producing conditions (e.g. nutrient deprivation).  This technology allows an engineered control of growth and quiescence in algae in triacylglycerol accumulating conditions.  Additionally, CHT7 will lead to new avenues in medical fields.  CHT7 can used as a metabolic sensor for metabolic disorders and growth phases of cancer.


Key Benefits

  • A genetically engineered algal strain that is capable of producing oil without compromising growth.
  • New immuno-detection kits to monitor the metabolic status of cells.
  • Accurate and sensitive biomarker for early detection or prevention of metabolic diseases, including cancer, that involve shift from quiescent to growth phase



  • Biofuels: high yielding algae strains that accumulate oil in growth phase
  • New cancer targets for chemotherapeutics
  • Discovering and developing suitable drug target for novel cancer therapy that causes minimal side effects to normal tissue cells


Patent Status


Patent application published, no. 20160201075


Licensing Rights Available


Full licensing rights available




Christoph Benning, Chia-Hong Tsai


Tech ID




Patent Information:

For Information, Contact:

Thomas Herlache
Assistant Director
Michigan State University