Pharmaceuticals from crab shells

February 13, 2012
The fungus Trichoderma (top left) has been genetically modified so that it can produce valuable pharmaceuticals from chitin - a substance found in crab shells. Credit: Vienna University of Technology / Creative Commons license - Hans Hillewaert.

The pharmaceutical NANA is 50 times more expensive than gold. Now it can be produced from chitin - a very cheap natural resource. The process was made possible by genetically modifying mold fungi.

Usually, mould fungi are nothing to cheer about – but now they can be used as "chemical factories". Scientists at the Vienna University of Technology have succeeded in introducing bacterial genes into the Trichoderma, so that the fungus can now produce important chemicals for the pharmaceutical industry. The raw material used by the fungus is abundant - it is chitin, which makes up the shells of crustaceans.

Fifty Times More Expensive than Gold

Viral Infections are usually treated with antiviral drugs, which are often derived from N-Acetylneuraminic acid (or NANA, for short). NANA, which can be obtained form natural sources or synthesized, is fifty times more valuable than gold - it is sold for around 2000 Euros per gram. A research team at Vienna UT, led by biotechnologist Astrid Mach-Aigner, has now found a new, eco-friendly way to produce NANA. The vast knowledge about the genetics of the fungus Trichoderma accumulated at Vienna UT over the years was crucial for the project.

Bacterial Genes for Mould Fungi

The fungus Trichoderma is very common. It lives in soil, in meadows and trees. "We knew that Trichoderma can degrade chitin – that's what the fungus naturally does in soil", says Astrid Mach-Aigner. This made Trichoderma a viable candidate for the research project. In order to get the fungus to produce the desired chemical product, bacterial genes had to be introduced into its genome. "Usually, Trichoderma breaks down chitin to monomer amino sugars", says Mach-Aigner. Due to the new genes, two extra reaction steps are now possible – and eventually the desired pharmaceutical N-Acetylneuraminic acid is produced.

Chitin as a Natural Resource

Chitin is, after cellulose, the most abundant biopolymer on earth. It is found in the carapaces of crustaceans, in the shells of insects, snails and cephalopods and in the cell walls of fungi. It is estimated that in the sea alone, ten billion tons of chitin are formed every year – several hundred times more than the cumulated body mass of all people on earth. This makes chitin a very sustainable resource for chemical synthesis.

The newly developed Trichoderma line can now be cultivated in bioreactors and produces the precious acid NANA from . The process has now been patented by the Vienna University of Technology and will be used for the cheap and eco-friendly production of pharmaceuticals on an industrial scale in the near future.

Explore further: New molecule may aid in production of biofuels and fungi-resistant plants

Related Stories

Smart fungus disarms plant, animal and human immunity

August 20, 2010

Fungal and bacterial pathogens are well capable of infecting plants, animals and humans despite their immune systems. Fungi penetrate leafs, stalks and roots, or skin, intestines and lungs, to infect their hosts.

Scientists grow plants with friendly fungi

August 8, 2011

Dr. Chris Thornton and colleagues at the University of Exeter are examining whether adding a safe and harmless fungus to compost boosts the growth and proliferation of crops' roots, helping them grow with less water. Not ...

Mold fungi can cure plants

November 1, 2011

We know them from our garden, from damp cellars or from the fridge - mold fungi can be found almost everywhere. Their success is due to their remarkable versatility:  depending on external conditions, they can choose ...

Japanese researchers turn a crab shell transparent

December 1, 2011

A group of researchers working out of Kyoto University in Japan have successfully transformed a normal crab into one that is transparent. As they describe in their paper published in the British Royal Society of Chemistry ...

Exploiting Trichoderma: From food security to biotechnology

December 21, 2011

From improving food security to their use as biotechnology power horses, Trichoderma fungi are increasingly being exploited by industry. Current advances in the field are brought together and highlighted in a special issue ...

Recommended for you

A new form of real gold, almost as light as air

November 25, 2015

Researchers at ETH Zurich have created a new type of foam made of real gold. It is the lightest form ever produced of the precious metal: a thousand times lighter than its conventional form and yet it is nearly impossible ...

New 'self-healing' gel makes electronics more flexible

November 25, 2015

Researchers in the Cockrell School of Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin have developed a first-of-its-kind self-healing gel that repairs and connects electronic circuits, creating opportunities to advance the ...

Getting under the skin of a medieval mystery

November 23, 2015

A simple PVC eraser has helped an international team of scientists led by bioarchaeologists at the University of York to resolve the mystery surrounding the tissue-thin parchment used by medieval scribes to produce the first ...

Atom-sized craters make a catalyst much more active

November 24, 2015

Bombarding and stretching an important industrial catalyst opens up tiny holes on its surface where atoms can attach and react, greatly increasing its activity as a promoter of chemical reactions, according to a study by ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.