Science is now One Step Closer to Using Algae for Bio-fuel

A breakthrough by a team of scientists makes algae a potentially viable source of biofuel.

The world is trying to wean itself off of fossil fuels. It’s vital we reduce our carbon footprint as much as possible in the next few decades, and many countries, states, cities, businesses, and people are committing to that goal. Most of the focus has been placed on renewable energy sources like solar and wind, but that does nothing for legacy vehicles and many power stations. For those, we’ll need a different solution: biofuels.

Today, most biofuels are made from corn and soybean oil, which is expensive to grow and harvest. This means biofuels struggle to be competitive with traditional fuels. Scientists have been trying to find a good alternative to these crops for years, and one team may have found it in algae.

Algae has a number of advantages over corn and soybeans: it can grow much faster, in all sorts of conditions, and it’s easier to harvest. The only problem is that algae doesn’t produce enough fats and oils to make it viable as a biofuel, so a group of researchers used genetic engineering to fix that.

The researchers, from the J Craig Venter Institute, spent eight years trying to manipulate the genomes of several different species of algae. At a conference on Monday, Venter himself spoke about the project and announced that the team had finally succeeded. They had more than doubled the amount of oils the algae could produce.

The most challenging part of the research was identifying the precise gene that controlled the amount of oil the algae produced. The team found it by starving the algae of nitrogen, which caused them to produce more oil. Through trial and error, the team identified the correct gene—a regulator called ZnCys—out of around 20 possible candidates.

Then, using the CRISPR gene-editing method, the team used this gene to force the algae to produce more oil. Their results were dramatic: typical algae can produce around 10 to 15 percent oil, but the modified version produces 40 percent.

“No algae in production that has anything like this level,” said Venter in an interview with Bloomberg.

That doesn’t mean algae-based biofuels are going to be replacing the oil in your car anytime soon, though. The team still has a lot of work ahead of it before this technology is market-ready. It could be years or even decades before we can start using algae-based biofuels commercially, but thanks to this research we’re a big step closer to seeing that happen.

Source: Bloomberg

Henry Sapiecha

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