Forget High Oil Content Algae

July 1, 2008


One of the major drawbacks of the open air pond system for industrial scale algae growth is the engineered strain’s inability to compete with wild types. This is because the lab trained algae spend all its energy resources producing oil instead of growing as fast as possible. So what is needed is a strain that can grow fast enough to push out the native strains and still produce the desired oil.

One possible way of achieving this is to rearrange one’s thinking about algae production. Instead of viewing the algae as biomass to be harvested, one could see them as solar powered bioreactors. What I mean by this is: have the oil production as an inducible trait and view the oil production as a byproduct of an algae bioreactor. This will allow the oil production to only occur when the engineered strain is at critical mass, and after it has grown fast enough to out-compete the wild type.

Of course this idea has a few technical hurdles (such as the oil produced would need a mechanism to be excreted into the media). But I see this post as more of a brainstorming exercise rather than trying to actively generate a solution. I would be interested in what the sustainable biotech community thinks.


6 Responses to “Forget High Oil Content Algae”

  1. cyrusvirdeh Says:

    Interesting idea. After a quick scan of the internet I couldn’t find any info on inducible promoter research in one of the commercial companies but I did find a pretty interesting little presentation from a scientist at the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) on the Development of Algal Genetic Tools ( It seems that they have done some work with diatoms and using the availability of silicon as a promoter. They also seems to be studying Nitrate Reductase and Copper as inducible promotors (slides 16 and 17 of the presentation).

  2. Ben Pavlik Says:


    Definitely an interesting presentation. I extracted the techniques that the authors feel need further refinement.

    1. Develop new selectable transformation markers
    To enable sequential addition of genes for multi-component metabolic engineering.

    2. Develop “universal” transformation vectors for use in a variety of species
    To reduce the time required to construct a new vector for each species.

    3. Develop new gene expression manipulation tools
    To enable sophisticated control over expression levels and timing.

    4. Develop new gene tagging approaches
    To determine protein expression levels and intracellular localization.

    These techniques have historically been optimized for animal and plant cell model organisms (ellegans, musculus, arabidopsis) but there are new challenges for the microalgal community. One of the these I see is that algae is in the Protist, or Protoctista Kingdom. Because this is a paraphyletic group, there is not a current model under which scientists can direct and compare their research. All of these techniques seem to have to be “tailored” for the genus or species in which the molecular scientist is working.

    Can someone respond to the current state of developing universal algal research guidelines, or what methods of comparative research exist?

  3. Robert Rankin Says:

    So algae research as a whole is fragmented, causing the genetic engineering efforts to stagnant. What can be done about that? Some initiative to align current research toward one strain? Is there already one?

    Or maybe a different species could be used? One that is well worked out. I wonder what the feasibility is of engineering chloroplasts into something like pichia pastoris and go from there. Thoughts?

  4. Hans Says:

    Might be fun to let nature do the work for you…

    Put some species into an environment that (1)supplies only what you want them to use (brackish water, sunlight, etc.?) and (2) rewards them for oil excretion to the media.

    A way to accelerate the evolution/mutation of these guys would probably help you achieve a suitable strain in less than 10,000 years.

  5. reid Says:

    can you expose the species to ooze or cosmic rays to make them mutate faster?

    algae research is lacking, the naming for spirulina is still pretty fragmented.

    perhaps one could engineer a species to tolerate conditions that would eliminate most wild types. that way even though a large part of the energy of the desired species is dedicated to oil production, competitors couldn’t survive. an extreme would be introducing some sort of poison that kills everything but your species (has engineered resistance), like a massive AMP/KAN resistance petri dish but instead with algae.

  6. Thank you for your time and wonderful read!! I definitely enjoying every little bit of it and I have you bookmarked to check out new stuff your upcoming blog posts…

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