Sustainable Materials Innovation at Checkerspot


A Spotlight on Checkerspot’s Algae-based Petroleum Alternatives

Petroleum isn’t just an energy source. It may be in the paints we use to decorate our homes, the asphalt roads we drive on, and even in our waterproof jackets and sporting equipment like skis. It’s incredibly pervasive. Unfortunately, it’s neither sustainable nor environmentally friendly.  

We need change - not only because petroleum is a non-renewable resource, but also because of the far-reaching environmental impact of extracting, refining, and using petroleum, such as the havoc wreaked on wildlife and wildlands, the carbon footprint, and the pollution. 

One company helping lead the migration away from petroleum-based products and toward more sustainable and clean alternatives is Checkerspot, a sustainable-materials innovator based in California, USA who recently won the 2023 SXSW innovation award in the design category for its renewable, bio-based polyurethane casting product called the Pollinator Kit(TM).

For Earth Day 2023, we want to take the opportunity to celebrate Checkerspot and the work they’re doing to drive change and protect our earth. 

Creating Sustainable Materials Inspired by Nature and Optimized for Performance 

Checkerspot is committed to developing high-performance sustainable materials that can be used to create products that are better for our planet, not just now but for generations to come. The company’s name honors the Edith Checkerspot Butterfly, a threatened butterfly species that lives nowhere else in the world except among plants that have adapted to soils created from serpentine granite unique to the San Francisco Bay Area. This notion of nature’s adaptiveness isn’t just part of the company’s namesake; it is also part of their strategic approach to sustainable materials research using alternative molecular building blocks.

Checkerspot designs oil-based performance biomaterials that are used in consumer goods like sporting equipment and clothing coatings. Their materials are sustainable alternatives to traditional petroleum-based polyurethanes, which are created using non-sustainable fossil fuels that have detrimental environmental impact. The company’s efforts currently center around a light-weight urethane-based composite, a cast urethane, and an algal oil—all which are all derived from microalgae.

To create these sustainable bioalternatives, Checkerspot biomanufactures structural oils that model those that are produced in nature by algae, but have not previously been accessible at commercial scale. This research requires that scientists work at the molecule level, where they first genetically scrutinize microalgae to study the specific genes responsible for producing fatty acids and oils, and then use synthetic biology to engineer proteins that can be integrated back into the algae to ultimately produce novel alternative-oil materials that are inspired by nature and optimized for commercial performance.  

Sustainable Materials Research with Geneious Prime

Geneious Prime by Dotmatics plays a key role in Checkerspot’s sustainable materials design. The team uses Geneious to map and annotate transcriptomes from oil seed-producing microalgae plant species, promoting the discovery of novel enzymatic activities. Microalgae are then engineered to biomanufacture unique custom oils and production is then scaled commercially. 

“Geneious is a lens for us to look at the genetic blueprints of how fatty acids and lipids are made…”

During their R&D process, Checkerspot leverages Geneious for a variety of purposes, such as to:

  • Support data from a variety of different biological origins, including genomic DNA and RNA generated in house, as well as publicly available data from DNA and protein databases

  • Provide a variety of different tools for assembly, alignment, relatedness, BLAST, annotation, and gene expression

  • Serve as a convenient centralized location to host the types of data and launch the different analyses that are required for Checkerspot to get more from their biological system

  • Facilitate collaboration and communication amongst scientists

Read more about the work on sustainable materials Checkerspot is doing with Geneious Prime by Dotmatics.

Geneious Prime and Dotmatics Platform Integration 

The suite of Geneious Prime molecular biology and sequence analysis tools that Checkerspot’s scientists use is now integrated with the biology registration system in the Dotmatics R&D platform. This integration makes it easier than ever for researchers to directly register single or bulk sequences along with their meta data, thereby helping to secure IP and create a searchable knowledge base that can inspire further innovation. 

Get the latest science news in your inbox.