Centre for Engineering Biology

Natural blue colouring pioneers win collaboration award

Researchers from SynthSys and the biotech firm Scot Bio have won a prestigious Scottish Life Sciences Award for their pioneering collaboration on natural blue colourants.

The partnership won the Innovative Collaboration prize for two years of work that has developed new molecular biology and extraction techniques to boost the yield and purity of Scot Bio’s phycocyanin product, a blue pigment it derives from spirulina algae.

 Natural blue colouring pioneers win collaboration award
From left: Dr Alistair McCormick, Dr Rocky Kindt, Scot Bio COO Polly Van Alstyne, Scot Bio CEO DC Van Alstyne, and Ivan McKee, Scottish Government Minister for Trade, Investment and Innovation.

Scot Bio aims to be a global leader in the rapidly growing market for natural food and drink colourants, and to become a major player in the pharmaceutical market, where phycocyanin has potential uses in cancer and liver treatments. Polly Van Alstyne, Chief Operating Officer at Scot Bio, said: “This award is a welcome endorsement of the hard work carried out by everyone at Scot Bio and the University of Edinburgh, and a clear example of how collaboration between academia and the private sector can have huge potential in the creation of high value jobs and in commercialising intellectual property.”

Phycocyanin occurs naturally in spirulina. Scot Bio, based at BioCity Scotland in North Lanarkshire, uses a patented growing method to increase the volume of phycocyanin that the spirulina produces, resulting in higher yields than traditional pond-grown spirulina. By producing spirulina in reactors rather than open-pond systems favoured by other suppliers, the company can offer traceability and security of supply that is highly desirable for brands using the blue colourant in their products.

The company has collaborated with the University since 2013 on multiple research projects, led by Dr Andrew Free, Dr Attila Molnar and Dr Alistair McCormick from the University’s School of Biological Sciences, and involving several PhD and masters students. Scot Bio’s head of R&D, Dr Rocky Kindt, began his company-sponsored PhD at the University of Edinburgh in 2013 and joined the company in 2016.

On winning the award, Dr McCormick said: “We are delighted to have developed such a strong relationship with ScotBio – our collaborative projects have been highly beneficial for all staff and students involved. “Working with ScotBio has helped to develop an interdisciplinary culture, and our research has since expanded into several new areas. This has led to significant fundamental and applied scientific advances, and high impact publications. This is a prime example of what can be achieved when academia and industry work together. We look forward to continued success in the future.”

Two of the collaborative research projects are focused on synthetic biology, seeking to manipulate the gene sequence to increase pigment production, while a third developed an economically viable purification process to produce phycocycanin at scale at medicinal grade purity. Scot Bio has recently scaled up its production capability to 16,000 litres and is looking to move from 2,000-litre tanks to 50,000-litre tanks within months. Its staff has grown from three to nine, and it has plans to increase its team by around 20 to accelerate its R&D and sales and marketing.