Martina Dajak on improving the phenotype of an industrial oil-producing microalgae strain

She discusses the expanding Omega-3 nutrient gap caused by overfishing and climate change, and suggests that microalgae may provide a solution to meet the rising demand from population growth. She also shares her insights on the inevitability of failed experiments in science, and her tea time with David Attenborough, where she learns about his passion for nature conservation.

Martina is a member of Dr. Andrew Free's Lab at the Institute of Quantitative Biology, Biochemistry, and Biotechnology. She is currently in her third year of her PhD, focusing on enhancing the performance of Omega-3 rich microalgae and developing desired phenotypes through Adaptive Evolution. Martina's background in microbiology and drug research has equipped her with the skills necessary to succeed as a biotechnologist. She earned her undergraduate degree in "Biotechnology and Drug Research" from the University of Rijeka. Afterward, she completed an MSc in "Biotechnology" at the University of Edinburgh, where her final project explored the structure and composition of microbial communities associated with microalgae in photobioreactors under different cultivation conditions.

Martina's experience doesn't end with academia. Following her studies, she worked on a year-long industry/academia joint project investigating the role of CreChar® in Direct Interspecies Electron Transfer (DIET) during Anaerobic digestion. After that, she spent almost two years in the industry, working with a start-up microalgae production company, where she developed her expertise in the field of algal biotechnology.


Could you briefly summarise your work?

The main focus of my research is to improve the phenotype of an industrial oil-producing microalgal strain. Given the lack of genomic resources and detailed studies on these microorganisms, as well as the complexity of stress adaptation, rational genetic engineering is limited. Therefore, I am working on a combined two-stage adaptive evolution approach to obtain a non-transgenic mutant with potentially higher cell growth/biomass production and stable lipid production. I am interested in combining this approach with de novo genome and transcriptome sequencing and various omics-based analyses that will allow us to decipher the relationship between genotype and phenotype in the evolved strain compared to the original strain. This will also help to explore the mechanisms that protect and allow cells to adapt in the stressful environment and identify the underlying changes in genes and biosynthetic pathways that can serve as a valuable resource for future genetic-manipulation strategies.

Why is your research important? How is it relevant to people's lives?

One-third of wild fish stocks are currently overfished, and the remainder of wild fish stocks are already being fished at the highest sustainable level. To date, marine fish have been the main source of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (ω-3-PUFAs) for the increasingly growing aquaculture feed market and the global consumer market DHA / EPA. This has changed recently due to the problem of environmental pollutants in fish oil, the alarming decline in fish stock health due to unregulated fishing and its detrimental effects on the marine ecosystem. The gap in omega-3 nutrient supply is likely to widen in the future as supply declines due to overfishing and the negative effects of climate change, while demand continues to increase due to a growing population and greater competition for omega-3 sources. Therefore, there is an urgent need for alternative solutions to fill this nutrient gap, and this is where my research comes in. Microalgae are the main producers of ω-3-PUFAs in the marine food chain and could therefore serve as a direct source of these valuable fatty acids. They could provide an alternative, economically feasible resource for the biotechnological production of PUFAs, which could ultimately provide a solution to the emerging problem of food security.

What are the major challenges in your field?

One of the biggest challenges is the lack of effective tools and protocols for analysing the vast amounts of data generated by high-throughput technologies, including NGS and other omics-based technologies. Working as a scientist in this era of "Big Data" is extremely exciting, but it can also be overwhelming as we generate more and more data but do not have the resources or tools to analyse it properly. More emphasis should be placed on developing new data analysis tools, as well as better reporting of genomic and other types of data (including failed analysis protocols).

Another challenge, more specific to my research, is that the operating costs of algae farming and downstream processing need to be improved to meet commercial demand and provide a sustainable alternative to fish oil. This is where increasing the productivity of microalgae through genetic and non-genetic methods comes into place. Another challenge in my field of study, but one that affects many other scientific fields, is the lack of annotated genomes and genomic resources for many non-model species. However, I believe this situation is beginning to improve rapidly.

What inspired you to be a scientist?

I would say that my high school biology teacher had the biggest influence on me and made me fall in love with biology. My curiosity about the living world and everything that surrounds us kept me on the path to science. However, the biggest motivation was the moment I realised the enormous impact science can have on our lives and that there are just so many things that still need to be discovered or improved. I knew I wanted to be a part of that and do my part to create something that could actually make a difference.


What do you like best about your job? What do you like the least?

My favourite thing about being a scientist is that every day is different and you can learn something new every day. There is a lot to explore, problems to solve, and ideas to question that we may have thought could not be questioned or were right in the first place. My least favourite part is waiting for the results and experiencing failed experiments or the like, which can affect overall motivation. It's hard to stay motivated and focused on the overall goal you are trying to achieve if you can not see the immediate results. However, all of this is an inevitable part of science, and the good thing is that once you get past it, it is rewarding and even more enjoyable!

If you could have tea with another scientist (alive or dead), who would it be? What would you talk about?

This is a difficult question because there are numerous scientists who have shaped science as we know it today. It would be interesting to talk to all of them about their work and its impact on our lives.

However, when I think of "modern era" scientists who have made a big impression on me, my first choice would be to have tea with David Attenborough. It would be very interesting to learn more about his life and his passion for nature and the environment. It would be interesting to discuss topics such as the impact of humans on the environment, projects to protect different species and ecosystems, and the influence of politics and governments on all of this.

What is the most unusual thing you have done as a scientist?

I made my own seaweed art project by collecting and framing dried and powdered seaweed that I found all over Europe. I would say this is not unusual for me, but I received many surprised faces from my friends when they visited me and saw my wall covered with it!

If you weren’t a scientist, what would you be doing?

Hopefully saving the world in some other way :). A journalist, conservationist or a nature photographer are first things that come to my mind!


Do you have any advice for people who want to go into this field of research or start a career as a scientist?

I would advise anyone who wants to be a scientist to follow their gut. If science excites you, then do it, but make sure you do it for yourself, because it will be easier to find motivation in difficult times! My advice is to equip yourself with patience and perseverance and enjoy the journey of exploration. Not every step will be meaningful, but the rewarding moments when you feel like you are part of something bigger are priceless.

What do you think are the major challenges facing humanity? How can science help?

Global warming, food security, water pollution, spread of antibiotic resistance, global pandemics, economic collapse, and more. The scientific community can contribute by conducting as much research as needed in these areas, rather than focusing only on those areas that are currently more economically attractive. Scientists can also contribute by engaging the public more and better communicating important research results and findings to them. There is a staggering amount of misinformation out there, and I believe that improving the public's understanding of science can have a major impact on government decisions regarding funding, policy, and regulations.

Related Links

Martina Dajak profile

Dr. Andrew Free profile

Andrew Free's Lab

Institute of Quantitative Biology, Biochemistry and Biotechnology