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Study to Genetically Alter Algae for Faster Biofuel Output

Tim Devarenne (Texas Agrilife Research)

Tim Devarenne (Kathleen Phillips, Texas Agrilife Research)

Biochemists and engineers at Texas A&M AgriLife Research in College Station are researching the genetic characteristics of algae to produce a type of the organism that can quickly make fuel-grade oil in commercial quantities. The project that includes collaborators from Cornell University and Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research is funded by a $2 million grant from National Science Foundation.

The Agrilife team has already identified a type of algae, Botryococcus braunii (B. braunii) that can produce large quantities of liquid hydrocarbons. The problem with B. braunii is that it grows slowly, which limits its utility for commercial-scale production. Other types of algae do grow quickly, but they do not produce large quantities of oil.

The challenge for the research team, therefore, is to find a way of transplanting B. braunii’s genetic information that produces large quantities of hydrocarbons into other types of algae that grow faster. A large part of that task falls on Agrilife biochemist Tim Devarenne (pictured left) who will study the B. braunii molecular biology to find the genes responsible for oil production. Devarenne’s lab will also study the function of those genes and how they contribute to their oil production.

Identifying those traits requires investigating thousands of algae varieties and conditions to find the optimal combination of growth rate, oil production, and biomass accumulation. The lead researcher on the project, Texas A&M biomedical engineering professor Arum Han, developed a microfluidics or lab-on-a-chip device that can speed this process along. The device is about the size of a business card, but has hundreds to thousands of microscopic wells that can each hold an individual alga cell.

“In that little microfluidic device, we can screen hundreds to thousands of different growth conditions at once and do in a week’s time what in a normal lab atmosphere would take probably a year to screen,” says Devarenne, adding “we can miniaturize everything and screen high volumes of algae to find optimal growth conditions to make the best amount of oil.”

Once the hybrid algae type is developed, Agrilife colleagues in Corpus Christi, Texas will will help determine how to grow it on a large scale, then work with industry on further scaling up production. The industry partner would be asked to grow large quantities of genetically altered algae, extract the oil, convert that oil into gasoline or diesel fuel, and market the product through normal gasoline and diesel distribution channels.

In addition to being a renewable fuel, algae can grow in common, dedicated environments such as municipal waste water pools, and ingest carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, from sources such as coal-fired power plant emissions. “That is different from petroleum.” says Devarenne, “because the CO2 from petroleum has been stored underground for hundreds of millions of years and then we release that into the atmosphere when we burn fuels created from petroleum.”

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