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Sapphire Energyr algae growing in petri dishes (Photo: Sapphire Energy)

New research shows GE marine algae works to produce biofuels

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Thursday, November 29, 2012, 01:50 (GMT + 9)

Researchers from UC San Diego and Sapphire Energy, Inc have demonstrated for the first time that genetically engineered (GE) marine algae can be just as capable as fresh water algae in producing industrially relevant products such as enzymes or biofuels.

The scientists engineered marine algae to produce five different kinds of industrially important enzymes; they suggest the same process could be used to enhance the yield of petroleum-like compounds from these salt water algae. Their achievement is detailed in a paper published online in the current issue of the journal Algal Research.

The ability to genetically transform marine algae into a biofuel crop is important because it expands the kinds of environments in which algae can be conceivably grown for biofuels. The UC San Diego study suggests that algal biofuels can be produced in the ocean or in the brackish water of tidelands or even on agricultural land on which crops can no longer be grown because of high salt content in the soil.

“What our research shows is that we can achieve in marine species exactly what we’ve already done in fresh water species. There are about 10 million acres of land across the US where crops can no longer be grown that could be used to produce algae for biofuels. Marine species of algae tend to tolerate a range of salt environments, but many fresh water species don’t do the reverse. They don’t tolerate any salt in the environment,” stated Stephen Mayfield, project leader.

Mayfield, a professor of biology at UC San Diego, also directs the San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology (SD-CAB), a consortium of research institutions in the region working to make algal biofuels a viable transportation fuel in the future.

“But now we’ve done it. What this means is that you can use ocean water to grow the algae that will be used to produce biofuels. And once you can use ocean water, you are no longer limited by the constraints associated with fresh water. Ocean water is simply not a limited resource on this planet,” he continued.

The UC San Diego biologists focused their study on a marine species of alga, Dunaliella tertiolecta, which had been earlier targeted by scientists for potential biofuels production because of its high oil content and ability to grow rapidly under a wide range of pH and salt concentrations.

To demonstrate that it could be used in commercial biofuel production, they introduced five genes into the alga that produced five different kinds of enzymes that could be used in an industrial setting to not only convert biomass to fuel, but also increase nutrient availability in animal feed. Some of these enzymes, for example, came from a fungus that degrades plant material into simple sugars.

“We hope to eventually determine whether whole algae, post-oil extraction, may be used as a feed additive to improve animal feeds. Animal feed is a relatively high volume market that may be able to benefit from algae-produced proteins as a feed additive,” the team wrote.



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