Fresh Thinking: Something Blue

A UCalgary startup has found a way to create a tantalizing colour not found in nature, naturally
Blue Cupcake
Photograph by Tim Nguyen

Written by Harry Vandervlist

It’s been more than eight years since comedian George Carlin left this planet and, of all the vintage comedy routines YouTube provides, his are still among the best. But events are catching up with some of those old classics. Case in point: an exciting discovery by UCalgary researchers addresses Carlin’s complaint that, “I can’t find blue food!” Not only do we now have all kinds of blue food but, thanks to a UCalgary-rooted clean-tech company, we can make it while pulling CO2 from the air.

For those who haven’t checked into Carlin’s backlist lately, it was on the very first episode of Saturday Night Live in 1975 that he complained: “I can’t find the flavour of blue! I mean, green is lime; yellow is lemon; orange is orange; red is cherry; what’s blue? There’s no blue!… Where is the blue food? We want the blue food! Probably bestows immortality! They’re keeping it from us!”

A few decades later, here we are enjoying blue Popsicles, savouring blue frosting and fueling ourselves with blue sports drinks. Soothing and eye-catching, blue also looks really good on Instagram. (It’s fun to ponder what Carlin would have had to say about Instagram.)

Indeed, demand is high — as in US$120 million per year — for blue food pigment, or phycocyanin as the stuff extracted from spirulina, a blue-green algae or cyanobacteria, is called. That extraction calls for an energy-inefficient process — or it did, until UCalgary’s Synergia Biotech came along.

From the first blue glass in ancient Egypt and the ground lapis lazuli in Vermeer’s paintings, to trade wars fought over indigo in the 1500s, fortunes have been built on blue.

Synergia Biotech consists of a half-dozen UCalgary professors and research associates from the faculties of science and engineering including Dr. Angela Kouris, PhD (CEO); Dr. Agasteswar Vadlamani, PhD (CTO); Dr. Christine Sharp, PhD’14, and Dr. Marc Strous, PhD (directors); and business partners and collaborators from the community.

The company didn’t start out in 2013 looking for a way to make a better blue; rather, the team was hunting for ways to capture carbon and produce bioenergy using algae. In 2017, Vadlamani noticed that, “Hey, we’re also able to produce phycocyanin.” He knew blue was big business, so the group nimbly “shifted focus, incorporated a company, entered [UCalgary’s] Creative Destruction Lab Rockies accelerator program and concentrated completely on commercialization.”

The Synergia process relies not on spirulina, but on different natural populations of cyanobacteria originally found in specific British Columbia lakes. The team developed a way to cultivate this renewable resource using a process that draws CO2 from the air. The researchers prize this carbon-capture aspect, says Kouris, because, “for us, the big drive is to replace a technology that can otherwise be a big emitter of CO2 — which all of the other processes are — and offer a better solution which actually removes CO2 while still producing something industry needs.”

Once they’ve cultivated the crucial microbes, Synergia extracts the precious phycocyanin using its signature bioprocess and, voilà, blue food. And not only blue — this primary colour allows the creation of many other shades, as well.

The question remains whether this naturally extracted phycocyanin really does bestow immortality, as Carlin pretended to suspect. Not quite, though phycocyanin’s health benefits include antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and immune-boosting qualities. Immortality aside, a lucrative made-in-Canada, carbon-negative process that replaces a carbon-emitting one is already great news. At this moment, the company has patents pending and is negotiating with a few “major colour multinationals” including a food processing company. Synergia has run pilot projects to test the production process and aims to have a Canadian manufacturing facility in place by the end of 2021. Once that happens, it will be time to start looking for food labels proclaiming their “natural blue” and, perhaps, trumpeting the carbon-negative pathway to the blue Popsicle or cupcake you clutch in your hand.

From the first blue glass in ancient Egypt and the ground lapis lazuli in Vermeer’s paintings, to trade wars fought over indigo in the 1500s, fortunes have been built on blue. Thanks to Synergia’s fruitful collaboration between engineers and microbiologists, this UCalgary startup now brings us to a new moment in the colour’s long cultural history — and marks the first time it’s played a role in mitigating our very own 21st-century climate challenges.

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