Oil Content In Algae Doubled In Step Towards More Efficient Biofuel

The algae produce twice as much oil as standard strains. Toa55/Shutterstock

A major new breakthrough has occurred in the bid to create an efficient biofuel using engineered algae. Researchers have apparently found a way to produce a new strain of the organism that doubles the amount of oil they produce when compared to all previously known varieties, without significantly inhibiting the growth of the strain.

Reported in the journal Nature Biotechnology, researchers claim to have found a way to increase the oil content in the new strain of algae from the standard 20 percent of the organism to an impressive 40 percent. This is an impressive leap in the conversion of carbon dioxide to fat in the algae, and while it is far from close to being produced on a commercial scale, it's an important proof of concept that shows what can be achieved.

“This step is critical, but it’s important to keep our focus down the line to where we need to go,” explained Alessandro Faldi in a statement. “We will need to increase the algae’s ability to convert the sun’s energy into biomass to further increase fat production and will begin testing and engineering more algae grown under various conditions. There’s still a long journey ahead of us.”

The work was carried out by Synthetic Genome, Inc, in conjunction with ExxonMobil. The two companies have been working together since 2009 in the bid to create a biofuel from algae that would be more efficient that current techniques that involve using corn. While using algal biofuel will still produce greenhouse gases, they hope the reduced level they do make will be a bridge to lower carbon solutions, while at the same time eliminating the current problem with biofuel production taking over land better suited for our agricultural needs.

The researchers took a species of algae known as Nannochloropsis gaditana, and then fine-tuned the region of the genome responsible for nitrogen assimilation. This altered the pathway of how the organism converted carbon into fat, and eventually resulted in the doubling of the compound found in the cells. The key, however, is that this does not impact on its growth, meaning that it can still be grown efficiently.

How this will now be taken forward remains to be seen, but this is not the first time that “breakthroughs” in algal biofuel production have been made before. It takes time, effort, and a lot of investment to take something from the proof of concept stage to an industrial level, so time will tell how this latest discovery impacts the future of biofuel production.

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