Modification and comparison of three Gracilaria spp. agarose with methylation for promotion of its gelling properties
© The Author(s) 2017
Received: 21 July 2017
Accepted: 9 October 2017
Published: 16 October 2017
In order to improve the gelling properties of agarose, we modified it by methylation. The agarose was prepared from Gracilaria asiatica, G. bailinae, and G. lemaneiformis with alkaline, treated with diatomaceous earth and activated carbon, and anhydrous alcohol precipitation. The methylation reaction process of agarose was performed with dimethyl sulfate while the chemical structure of low-gelling temperature of agarose was also studied by 13C-NMR and FT-IR spectra. Results showed that the quality of agarose from G. asiatica is optimal. Its electroendosmosis is 0.116, sulfate content is 0.128%, and its gel strength (1.5%, w/v) is 1024 g cm−2, like those of the Sigma product (A9539). The gelling temperature, melting temperature, and gel strength of the low-gelling temperature agarose is 28.3, 67.0 °C, and 272.5 g cm−2, respectively. FT-IR Spectra and 13C-NMR spectra also showed that agarose was successfully methylated. Overall, this work suggests that low-gelling temperature agarose may have potential uses as an agar embedding material in various applications such as biomedicine, food, microbiology, and pharmaceutical.
Agar, a mixture of cell-wall polysaccharides including agarose and agaropectin, can be extracted from various species of marine red algae (Rhodophyta) . The predominant agar component, agarose, an electrically neutral polymer, is made up of the repeating unit of agarobiose disaccharide of a 3-O-linked β-d-galactopyranose residue, alternating with a 4-O-linked 3,6 anhydro-α-l-galactopyranose in linear sequence . The agaropectin is a heterogeneous mixture of smaller molecules that account for lesser amounts of agar. Further, agaropectin is not electrically neutral, due to heavy modifications of sulfate, pyruvate, and methyl side-groups; these chemical substituents are responsible for the varying gel properties of the polysaccharide in aqueous solutions. Due to its non-ionic nature, agarose as aqueous gel has been widely used as culture media and substrates for electrophoresis [3, 4]. Agarose has been used as thickeners in foods, cosmetics, and other conventional uses [5, 6], and can be used for pharmaceutical and cell encapsulation [7, 8].
For all these applications, suitable gelling and melting temperatures of agarose are of particular importance. Biotechnological grade agarose typically has a gelling temperature of about 37 °C and a melting temperature of above 70 °C, which is not favorable for maintaining the activity or integrity of biological reagents. Therefore, we need a low agaropectin content of algae for the preparation of agarose, and via chemical modification to reduce its gelling temperature and obtain the low-gelling form. In general, Gelidium-extracted agar typically has better quality, such as higher gel strength, but the high cost plus the gradual exhaustion of natural prairies have prompted a search for alternative sources . We need a kind of algae that can take Gelidium for the preparation of agarose. Gracilaria (Gracilariales, Rhodophyta), a cosmopolitan genus, has strong adaptability and high speed of growth, which has become one of our options. G. asiatica, G. bailinae, and G. lemaneiformis are rich species of Gracilaria algae. In recent years, the Gracilaria algae farming industry has developed, e.g., the cultivation area of G. lemaneiformis is more than 200,000 acres and production is over 150,000 tons (dried weight) per year in China, providing an excellent substitute for Gelidium agar in the industry . However, the quality of agarose from Gracilaria species is low, due to high sulfate content. Treatment with sodium hydroxide converts l-galactose-6-sulfate to 3,6-anhydro-l-galactose, and thus greatly improves agarose quality [11, 12]. High quality agarose is obtained by further purification such as isopropanol precipitation, ion-exchange chromatography, and size-exclusion chromatography [13, 14]. Typically, when agarose concentration is 1.0% (w/v), high quality agarose has a gel strength of at least 750 g cm−2, a gelling temperature of 37 °C, a melting temperature of 85 °C, a sulfate content of 0-0.15% (w/w), and an electroendosmosis (EEO) of 0.15 or less . Gel properties include gelling temperature, gel melting temperature, and gel strength with different seaweed sources and extraction conditions . It has also been found that gelling temperature can vary in modified agarose .
The aims of this study were to assess which species (G. asiatica, G. bailinae, and G. lemaneiformis) were suitable for agarose preparation; this would involve alkaline treatment with anhydrous alcohol precipitation procedures to obtain good preparation conditions for low-gelling temperature agarose by methylation. Comparison was made of physico-chemical properties of agarose from seaweed to commercially available products of Sigma and Biowest. It might provide more information about FT-IR and 13C-NMR spectra related to agarose and low-gelling temperature agarose, and then obtaining the relationship between changes of physico-chemical properties (such as gelling temperature, melting temperature, sulfate content, and EEO) and their structure.
Red algae Gracilaria (G. asiatica, G. bailinae, and G. lemaneiformis) were obtained from Chenghai district agar glue factory (Shantou, China). Specimens of Gracilaria were harvested in April (2013) in Nan’ao County (23°28′46.23″N and 117°06′24.58″E) in Shantou, China. Three kinds of red algae Gracilaria were identified by a corresponding author. For the comparative study, Biowest agarose (Cat. NO. 111860) was purchased from GENE COMPANY LTD. (HK), Commercial agarose (no methylation) (Cat. NO. A9539), low-gelling temperature-agarose (GT: 29.5 ± 1.0 °C, MT: 65.0 ± 0.9 °C, GS: 266.8 ± 5.2 g cm−2) (Cat. NO. A9414) while other chemicals were purchased from Sigma-Aldrich Co. LLC. (St. Louis, MO, USA).
Low grade agarose with the higher sulfate content was prepared according to the process specified in the patent . Briefly, red algae Gracilaria was boiled in alkaline solution at 90 °C for 2 h, filtered with diatomaceous earth and activated carbon; finally, agarose was dried in air, followed by more drying in the oven at 50 °C for 24 h. Low grade agarose was further purified by using the anhydrous alcohol precipitation. To this end, low grade agarose was dissolved in deionized water (1:50 w/v) and autoclaved for 1.5 h at 120 °C. The solution was slowly cooled to about 40 °C with steady stirring. The solution was transferred into a beaker, and anhydrous alcohol (1:4 v/v) was added. After thorough mixing and standing for 12 h at room temperature, agarose was obtained by centrifugation at 10,000 rpm min−1 at for 30 min at 25 °C, which was dried in the oven at 65 °C for 12 h and ground.
Agarose was powdered and used for measurements of gel strength, gelling temperature, and melting temperature. Also, 1.5% (w/v) gel solution was prepared by dissolving agarose in deionized water in an autoclave at 120 °C for 1.5 h. Gel strength was assessed with a Gel Tester (Kiya Seisakusho, Japan). Gelling and melting temperature were measured according to a previous report .
Sulphate content was determined following the turbidrimetric method, reported by Dodgson and Price (1963) using K2SO4 as standard. EEO was determined following the modified procedures previously reported . Agarose (0.2 g) was boiled in pH 8.6 TBE buffer (10 mL). The standard test solution consisted of 40 mg mL−1 Dextran-700 and 5 mg mL−1 bovine serum albumin (BSA). The EEO standards were run at a constant voltage (75 V) for 3 h. EEO (mr) in agarose gel was calculated with the equation: mr = OD/(OD + OA), and OD and OA representing the distance from origin of dextran and albumin.
Goldview DNA stain (Takara, China) was loaded into 1% agarose gel in TAE buffer and run at 110 V for 50 min in a standard horizontal electrophoresis unit. DNA was observed under UV illumination, and images were collected immediately after electrophoresis.
FT-IR spectra of agarose and low-gelling temperature-agarose were recorded with a FT-IR Spectrometer (Nicolet, Rhinelander, WI, USA), in the 4000–400 cm−1 range with a resolution of 2 cm−1 using KBr pellets.
Noise-decoupled 13C-NMR spectra of agarose and low-gelling temperature agarose were recorded with a Superconducting Fourier Transform Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Spectrometer (Varian INOVA 500NB, Falls Church, VA, USA) at 125 MHz. The samples were dissolved in D2O (50 mg mL−1) and analyzed with a 10 mm inverse probe. Spectra were recorded at 70 °C with pulse duration of 15 μs, acquisition time 0.4499 s, relaxation delay 1.55 s, spectral width 29.76 kHz, 3700–3900 scans, using DMSO as the internal standard (ca. 39.5 ppm); the sample was scanned 3700–3900 times.
Comparison of agar from Gracilaria
Physico-chemical properties of agaroses from G. asiatica, G. bailinae, G. lemaneiformis, Sigma, and Biowest
GS (g cm−2)
38 ± 1.2
37 ± 0.3
88 ± 0.8
88 ± 1.5
872 ± 15.8
1024 ± 17.0**
0.17 ± 0.01
0.13 ± 0.02*
0.16 ± 0.005
0.12 ± 0.002*
39 ± 0.8
38 ± 0.3
89 ± 1.0
89 ± 0.5
879 ± 26.9
1003 ± 13.6**
0.20 ± 0.01
0.17 ± 0.02*
0.18 ± 0.004
0.16 ± 0.003
37 ± 0.8
37 ± 0.3
89 ± 1.0
92 ± 0.8
896 ± 23.2
1008 ± 21.6**
0.18 ± 0.02
0.15 ± 0.01*
0.17 ± 0.004
0.15 ± 0.003
38 ± 0.8
93 ± 1.9
878 ± 18.1
0.15 ± 0.01
0.13 ± 0.002
37 ± 0.9
92 ± 0.6
1127 ± 23.6
0.12 ± 0.01
0.11 ± 0.003
Modification of agarose with methylation
Chemical properties of methylated agarose
13C-NMR chemical shift of methylated agarose from G. asiatica and agarose from G. asiatica, Biowest, and Sigma
13C chemical shifts (ppm)
G. asiatica (methylated)
High quality agarose can be obtained with NaOH treatment and anhydrous alcohol precipitation procedures to remove sulfate and pyruvate residues. Agarose prepared from Gracilaria dura by alkali treatment has a residual sulfate content of 0.25% . Further treatment with isopropyl alcohol precipitation reduces the sulfate content to 0.14% in agarose prepared from G. amansi . In this study, we used the anhydrous alcohol precipitation method, as it is a more environmentally-friendly process; anhydrous alcohol can be recycled during the industrial agarose preparation.
Determination and comparison of the proximate composition between G. asiatica and G. lemaneiformis
Content (%, dry weight)
Based on the best reaction conditions, the gelling and melting temperature of methylated agarose is lower and higher than Sigma’s product (A9414), respectively. This is due to –OH of Sigma’s product being modified by hydroxyethyl. To our knowledge, the optimization of agarose from G. asiatica methylated by using DMS has not been reported. By using less NaOH, DMS, and time during the preparation of methylated agarose, industry operation costs can be reduced. This methylation method of agarose with DMS is safe, simple, convenient, and suitable for industrial application.
In FT-IR spectra of both the prepared agarose from G. asiatica and the Biowest agarose, a clear peak at about 3450 cm−1 corresponding to –OH stretching was detected. However, the hydroxy peak of methylated agarose at ~ 3450 cm−1 did not apparently disappear or decrease, and the –OCH3 peak at 2950 cm−1 was not an obvious enhancement, indicating –OH of agarose was not completely methylated. Further, –CH3 can be directly connected to pyranoses of agarose, leading to the C–O stretch vibration peak split (the peak at 1650 cm−1 splits into two peaks at 1650 and 1566 cm−1). 13C-NMR spectra of prepared agarose only have 12 signals of chemical shift, no chemical shift of carbon atomic agaropectin (101.6, 69.3, 71.2, 79.1, 70.2, and 67.9 ppm) and starch polysaccharide (100.7, 72.7, 74.3, 78.7, 72.5, and 62.2 ppm). These results indicated that the agaropectin and starch polysaccharide in the agar have been removed . In the 13C-NMR spectra of methylated agarose, three carbon atoms A1 (98.46 ppm), G3 (82.20 ppm) and A4 (77.51 ppm) appear as distinct small peak signals, possibly due to the presence of –OCH3 groups in methylated agarose; this results in anisotropy around the three carbons. FT-IR and 13C-NMR spectra correspond to changes of physical properties of methylated agarose.
In this study, electroendosmosis of preparation agarose from G. asiatica was 0.12, sulfate content was 0.13% and gel strength (1.5%, w/v) was 1024 g cm−2. Low-gelling temperature agarose was prepared successfully. The gelling temperature, melting temperature, and gel strength of the low-gelling temperature was 28.3, 67.0 °C, and 272.5 g cm−2, respectively. FT-IR Spectra showed the peak of methylated agarose at around 1650 cm−1 split into 1650 and 1566 cm−1 with two peaks. 13C-NMR spectra of methylated agarose had two clear signals of –OCH3 at 59.38 and 56.01 ppm. G. asiatica is more appropriate for agarose preparation, as methylated agarose also has good features. This methylated agarose is beneficial for the future application in biomedical, food, microbiology and pharmaceutical areas.
HD designed the study, participated in discussing the results, and revised the manuscript. YG and KLC performed the assays and prepared the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.
The authors declare that they have no competing interests.
This work was financial supported by the National High Technology Research and Development Program of China (Grant No. 2012AA10A411), The Chinese Academy of Sciences and Comprehensive Strategy Cooperation Projects in Guangdong Province (Grant No. 2011A090100040) and the National Natural Science Foundation of China (Grant No. 31000189).
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