Improving Algal Genetics for Biofuels and Biological Chemical Production

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Algae convert water and carbon dioxide into a variety of chemicals using only the energy of the sun. While land plants also perform these photosynthetic processes, algae have much higher productivities making algae ideal for the biological production of fuels and industrial chemicals. For example, algae naturally make triacylglycerides (TAGs) that can be harvested and converted into biodiesel. Algae also make high value chemicals such as omega-3 fatty acids and astaxanthin that are increasingly popular as health supplements. In the future, we may be able to metabolically engineer algae to produce a wide variety of useful industrial chemicals for fuels, polymers, and other applications. Since many of these chemicals currently come from fossil fuel sources, making them with algae may be a greener alternative and offset our reliance on fossil fuels.

Making algal-derived chemicals cost-competitive with fossil-fuel derived analogs will require re-engineering the algal cells to more directly channel cellular energy to production of the desired chemical. At JCVI, we have been adapting synthetic biology techniques to improve the precision and speed at which algal strains can be improved. We have developed gene editing, artificial chromosomes, and novel approaches for DNA delivery into the algal cells. Improving these methods will allow us to do more experiments to better understand algal biology and will ultimately allow us to create the strains for greener production of the chemicals we need in our daily lives.

Inactivation of Phaeodactylum tricornutum urease gene using transcription activator-like effector nuclease-based targeted mutagenesis.
Plant biotechnology journal. 2015-05-01; 13.4: 460-70.
PMID: 25302562
Assembly of eukaryotic algal chromosomes in yeast.
Journal of biological engineering. 2013-12-10; 7.1: 30.
PMID: 24325901

Funding for this work was provided by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation (GBMF5007 to P. D. W. and C. L. D., GBMF3828 and GBMF5006 to A. E. A.), the U.S. Department of Energy (DE- SC0008593) to A. E. A. and C. L. D., and the National Science Foundation (NSF-MCB-1129303 to C. L. D. and OCE-1136477 to A. E. A.).