"This review is focused on potential avenues of genetic engineering that may be undertaken in order to improve microalgae as a biofuels platform for the production of biohydrogen, starch-derived alcohols, diesel fuel surrogates,and/or alkanes."
Some of the commercialization challenges of algae based biofuel that this review article identifies include:
- A low-energy methods to harvest microalgal cells.
- The ability to consistently produce biomass at large scale under highly variable outdoor conditions.
- Preventing invasive species in large-scale ponds.
- The low light penetration in dense microalgal cultures.
- Having a cost effective extraction technique.
- Potentially poor cold flow properties of most microalgae based biodiesel.
- Over 40,000 species of algae have been described, and it is likely that this is only a small fraction of the total number of available species. (Source: Hu, Q., M. Sommerfeld, E. Jarvis, M. Ghirardi, M. Posewitz, M. Seibert, and A. Darzins. 2008. Microalgal triacylglcerols as feedstocks for biofuel production: perspectives and advances. Plant J. 54:621-639)
- 3,000 strains of algae were investigated during the US. Department of Energy's Aquatic Species program. NREL and several other research institutions are continuing this screening effort.
When we put algae into a commercialization context it will be incredibly fast compared to commercial agriculture. Commercial crops have been grown for thousands of years with specific traits being selected for and improved upon the entire time. A popular example is corn (maize).
In order to improve algae for industrial applications there are several areas that need to studied further. This review covers the following areas.
Genetic engineering of microalgae
- Microalgae genomes- While most algae research has been limited to a few strains of algae, lower costs in sequencing and their relatively small size will allow microalgae genomics to develop quickly.
- Methods for transformation and expression- there have been over 30 different strains of microalgae that have been transformed successfully. The review notes that the "efficiency of transformation seems to be strongly species dependent."
- Lipid metabolism is discussed from the biosynthesis, catabolism, and pathway modification perspective. Boiling it down it would be ideal to be able to control all of the cellular machinery to produce lipids that are desirable for biofuel applications. This includes controlling the lipids produced, and trying to optimize cellular production of the desired product.
- Direct production of biofuel is discussed as a way of reducing production of costs of biofuels. Most successful examples of direct biofuel synthesis have thus far only been achieved in E. coli. This validates that it should be possible with algae with the right transformation tools.
While there is a lot of work that needs to be done in a number of areas, it is exciting and I am confident the algae sector (academic and industry) are making progressive steps in improving algae for biofuel production.
If you are interested in the review the abstract is shown below.
Genetic engineering of algae for enhanced biofuel production
Radakovits, R. Jinkerson, RE, Darzins, A, Posewitz, MC
There are currently intensive global research efforts aimed at increasing and modifying the accumulation of lipids, alcohols,hydrocarbons, polysaccharides and other energy storage compounds in photosynthetic organisms, yeast and bacteria through genetic engineering. Many improvements have been realized, including increased lipid and carbohydrate production, improved H2 yields,and the diversion of central metabolic intermediates into fungible biofuels. Photosynthetic microorganisms are attracting considerable interest in these efforts due to their relatively high photosynthetic conversion efficiencies, diverse metabolic capabilities, superior growth rates and their ability to store or secrete energy-rich hydrocarbons. Relative to cyanobacteria, eukaryotic microalgae possess several unique metabolic attributes of relevance tobiofuels production, including the accumulation of significant quantities of triacylglycerol, the synthesis of storage starch (amylopectin and amylose), which is similar to that found in higher plants, and the ability to efficiently couple photosynthetic electron transport to H2 production. Although the application of genetic engineering to improve energy production phenotypes in eukaryotic microalgae is in its infancy, significant advances in the development of genetic manipulation tools have recently been achieved in microalgal model systems, which are being used to manipulate central carbon metabolism in these organisms.It is likely that many of these advances can be extended into industrially relevant organisms. This review is focused on potential avenues of genetic engineering that may be undertaken in order to improve microalgae as a biofuels platform for the production of biohydrogen, starch-derived alcohols, diesel fuel surrogates,and/or alkanes.