Synthetic biology in microalgae


Fayza DABOUSSI  - Directrice de Recherche INRA

Tél. : +33 (0)5 61 55 96 87 - fayza.daboussi @


A new team created in 2015.


The development of microalgae has become a key objective for scientific, economic and societal communities due to their potential to unlock CO2 as a substrate for the synthesis of biological materials. In this context, diatoms, a major group of photosynthetic microalgae, have a high biotechnological potential as nutritional supplements, antioxidants, cosmetics, natural dyes, and polyunsaturated fatty acids. Among them, Phaeodactylum tricornutum has become an attractive model due to its lipid abundance (30% per dry weight which can reach to 46% after stress), and its fatty-acid profile (30% of EPA (C20:5) and 26% of palmitoleic acid (C16:1)). However, their use as industrial biofactories has been hampered by the paucity of genome engineering tools. I recently contributed to cutting edge research to overcome such bottlenecks by demonstrating that targeted and stable modifications of the genome of the P. tricornutum diatom can be achieved using specific engineered nucleases. We went on to demonstrate this methodology to produce lipid-producer strains valuable for biodiesel production.


In January 2015, I was appointed Research Director at the INRA as an external candidate with the aim of establishing a new team devoted to genome engineering of microalgae, reinforcing the leading role of the LISBP in synthetic biology approaches in industrial biotechnology.

I plan to re-design existing biosynthetic pathways as well as to design and construct novel functions and systems in the P. tricornutum diatom.  This requires the development of genome-engineering methodologies to efficiently manipulate cells in a predictable manner to develop “platform organisms”. To achieve this goal, I propose to:


  1. Achieve improved genome modification frequencies opening new perspectives both to study gene function or to rationally modify microalgae genetic composition
  2. Develop an efficient gene expression toolbox allowing metabolic engineering to accurately control expressing pathway genes to establish novel biotransformation biocatalysts for biotechnology
  3. Validate these methodologies by engineering lipid metabolism


The research program will provide an innovative toolbox for reverse genetics (gene inactivation, replacement and tagging), and the means to achieve comprehensive conceptual redesign of the metabolic potential of microalgae. Unlocking this potential is a key factor for use of microalgae in a sustainable bioeconomy.