Lake Baikal, the world’s oldest and deepest lake, is in danger. For several years now, the water near the shores of the vast Siberian lake has been turning green with algae, and satellite images reveal that that is only a small part of a much bigger problem: large green blooms can be seen in the middle of the lake too. A worrying 1,800 tons of algae per 10 km has washed up on the shores, which scientists say is a sure sign of pollution and imbalance in the lake. Among those battling to save the precious lake is Solixant, a resident of the Skolkovo Foundation’s biomed cluster.

Lake Baikal in southeast Siberia is the oldest and deepest lake in the world. The unique freshwater fauna found in the lake, which is now in trouble, has led to it being dubbed "the Galapagos of Russia." Photo: Pixabay.

“The volume of algae in Baikal is the biggest in 20 years,” says Denis Kuzmin, general director of Solixant. “The situation has been getting worse since 2011.”

Algae and the cyanobacteria that live in water produce cyanotoxins, which can lead to fish dying en masse and people getting severe poisoning from eating them, explains Kuzmin, a molecular biologist whose company specialises in analysing the properties of algae.

“The situation is alarming and we want to help solve it,” he says.

Algal blooms - an explosion of algae growth in a body of water - are usually a result of two factors.

“It happens when there’s a lot of nitrogen and phosphorus in the water, which usually come from industrial enterprises and fertilisers used in agriculture, and more importantly, when the water temperature is constantly rising, from global warming. We are seeing in Baikal what will probably happen everywhere,” warns Kuzmin.

While environmentalists have for years accused a pulp-and-paper plant on the shore of polluting the waters of Lake Baikal, which contains one-fifth of the world’s fresh water reserve and is home to hundreds of aquatic species, Kuzmin is reluctant to assign blame. The task his company has assigned itself is to monitor the situation and find a solution. For the former task, the company is teaming up with fellow Skolkovo resident Dauria Aerospace, a satellite-maker that is a resident of the foundation’s space cluster. The plan is to use Dauria’s satellites and earth-monitoring technology to get a clear picture of what is happening in the world’s lakes.

"We are seeing in Baikal what will probably happen everywhere."

“We need high-quality monitoring of what’s going on there and in other lakes. Secondly, we need regular samples from these bodies of water, to keep an eye on what quantities there are of each kind [of algae], and how dangerous they are. It’s a united approach to monitoring the situation and finding a solution to it,” he says.

To this end, a working group is currently being formed consisting of scientists from across Russia as well as local specialists and an army of volunteers.

Working to protect Baikal – a UNESCO world heritage site – is, however, just a sideline for Solixant, which became a resident of the Skolkovo Foundation in March, one of the first companies to join the newly formed agriculture division within the biomed cluster.

A key area of the company’s focus right now is studying micro-seaweeds to try to identify sources of new and powerful antibiotics and other useful substances. Kuzmin acknowledges that “as well as saving Baikal, we are hoping to get a collection of samples that haven’t been studied before that could have great potential for the pharma industry.”

Searching the seas

Around the world, scientists are looking to algae as a source of antibiotics – a quest that is becoming ever more pressing as more and more bugs prove resistant to existing drugs. Tests at the U.K.’s University of Exeter found that samples of algae gathered on the Cornish coast were able to defeat the MRSA superbug, which affects tens of thousands of people every year and can be fatal.

Solixant collects samples of water containing algae from bodies of water around the world in its quest to identify new and powerful antibiotics and other useful molecules. Photo: Solixant.

Algae often occur together with very distinctive bacteria that are resistant to classic antibiotics, and the algae demonstrate immunity to them, explains Kuzmin.

“We had the idea at the beginning of this year to screen a large number of algae and bacteria that live in same environment as them. Then we identified organisms that can stably eliminate elements that give rise to bacteria pathogens and resistant bacteria,” he said. “In six months, we have found six organisms.”

The process is a painstaking one.

“When an organism is growing, it puts some of its molecules into the medium in which it is growing [in this case, water],” explains Kuzmin. “We work with that medium, in which there are tens of thousands of molecules.”

When the clinical team identifies that something in the water is slowing the growth of bacteria, they keep dividing the extracts from the sample according to its chemical composition until they have one substance that they can say for certain contains that quality, and the next task is to identify that substance.

“When we identify the chemical formula, it might be that we have simply rediscovered something that already existed – that’s always a risk. What’s better is if we discovered something similar to an existing substance. The third outcome is that we have discovered something completely new – and that’s fantastic,” he says.

It may sound like a Herculean task, but Kuzmin has no doubt that the possible results are well worth the work: the team has already discovered an algae that produces fucoxanthin, a powerful antioxidant.

“It’s the future for athletes [for use in nutritional supplements], and major companies are battling it out right now to find sources of this molecule,” he said..

With the help of colleagues from the Papanin Institute for the Biology of Inland Waters of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Solixant found an algae that produces fucoxanthin in 2 percent strength – the biggest proportion found so far, according to Kuzmin. The company is now in talks relating to the commercialisation of its research, he said, adding that it was too early to disclose any details.

This early success could be just the beginning, the scientists hope.

Denis Kuzmin, general director of Solixant. Photo: D. Kuzmin.

“The algae and cyanobacteria group is very little studied, and it’s also one of the most diverse groups, comparable to insects,” explains Kuzmin. “These organisms collect a really broad range of molecules inside them, plus external influences can actually affect which molecules build up inside them.”

The molecules that can be extracted have wide-ranging applications, from antibiotics to anti-tumour treatments, he said, and only 1 percent of these organisms are currently cultured, "so this area has huge potential,” he added.

In addition, algae are one of the fastest-growing biomasses on the planet.

“It can grow anywhere there is water and light, in bodies of water of varying salinity and depth, starting from puddles,” says Kuzmin.

Star partners

Solixant is working together with some leading institutes in this field.

“There is an institute in Smolensk [the Institute of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy] that is home to one of Russia’s leading antibiotics specialists, Roman Kozlov, one of the most authoritative figures in this industry,” he said.

“The institute has a collection of about 40,000 examples of bacteria that proved resistant to antibiotics and led to the death of patients,” he said. “Any antibiotic, before it goes on sale on the Russian market, is tested by this institute.”

Solixant representatives visited the institute last month and agreed with its researchers that the institute would test the company’s molecules on their bacteria: the ultimate test of their molecules’ efficiency.

“If we see the result we’re expecting, that will be a great result all round. It will mean that it works,” said Kuzmin.

Solixant also works in cooperation with U.S. company Solix Algredients, of which it started off as a subsidiary before becoming a separate company with the same shareholders. The companies exchange results and feedback, said Kuzmin.

Solix, which is headquartered in Colorado and also has R&D facilities in China, began as a producer of biofuels made from algae, before repositioning itself in 2015 as a B2B supplier of algae-derived natural ingredients.

The idea of the Russian subsidiary was for the U.S. company to gain access to Russian research in exchange for the transfer of their technology. Solixant is the exclusive rights holder to Solix technology in Europe.

Solix’s main product is astaxanthin, another powerful antioxidant that is used in dietary supplements.

“The American company is interested in getting access to the Russian collection: Russia has one of the biggest collections of microalgae in the world, which dates back to Soviet times,” he explained.

The company uses photobioreactors like the one above to cultivate a large number of microalgae cells. Photo: Solixant.

“We have a lot of bodies of water and very different climatic zones. We have examples from the Far East, from southern seas: the same organism with totally different qualities. It’s a gigantic collection of microalgae that was just sitting on shelves and was no use to anyone until we took an interest. So the American company is interested in seeing if in this collection there is a more effective producer of astaxanthin, and that’s the basis of our cooperation,” said Kuzmin.

Solixant also finances expeditions to collect water samples from all over the world, including China, Mongolia, Vietnam, Japan and India.

Team of many talents

Despite the scope of the research, Solixant’s quest for new antibiotics is not the company’s only area of activity. It is also developing a food supplement for prawns based on algae. Currently, most prawns for sale in Russia are imported, but Solixant believes with the help of its supplement, which is still under development, Russia can cultivate large, healthy prawns of its own.

The company is also working on a “green medicine” project in coordination with two other Skolkovo residents: Insilica and First Oncological Scientific and Consultation Centre (PONKC). Green medicine uses the body’s own resources and a healthy lifestyle to treat and prevent illness.

Solixant’s project uses a database compiled by a U.S. institute that analysed how human cells changed when treated with all the most common drugs sold in pharmacies. The company is now recording how those same cells change in response to extracts from its algae collection, to see if any of its molecules have a similar effect to those of the drugs. Insilica and PONKC are providing programming support for the project. 

As well as taking advantage of the Skolkovo Foundation’s networking opportunities to join forces with fellow biotech startups, Solixant also made use of Skolkovo’s support mechanisms for importing research equipment when it recently brought over a photobioreactor – a cultivator of microalgae that makes it possible, in Kuzmin’s words, to “put in one cell and get back many millions of cells” – with a capacity of 4,000 litres.

“Skolkovo has helped us a lot twice: TFK [Skolkovo’s customs and finance company] pays the import duties and taxes on importing technical equipment, which can be up to 30 or 40 percent of the total cost. Of course, when you have a reactor that costs about $150,000 each and you are buying two or three, plus other materials, that’s a real help,” said Kuzmin.

“They did their job quickly and efficiently and saved us a lot of resources. A year ago we brought in equipment when we were not a Skolkovo resident, and it’s incomparable with bringing it in as a resident,” he added.