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Squeezing Fat From Algae

NSF Award:

Nebraska 2010-15 RII Project: Nanohybrid Materials & Algal Biology  (University of Nebraska)

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Algae show great promise as alternative sources of biofuels. These photosynthetic organisms produce triglycerides, a component in natural fats and oils that can be easily converted for use as a biofuel. Unfortunately, the conditions that accelerate fat production to sufficient levels for fuel also terminate cell growth.

In addition, growing and harvesting algae for triglycerides is a laborious process; algae are first grown to a critical volume, and then transferred to a new growth medium that limits nitrogen, one of its key nutrients. Under nitrogen starvation, algae stop growing and begin to accumulate triglycerides. Thus, high biomass production and lipid accumulation are generally mutually exclusive.

However, researchers at the University of Nebraska Lincoln (UNL) are uncovering the internal mechanisms for regulating and producing triglycerides in algae, and discovering how environmental factors affect fat accumulation. This is leading to new methods for fat production in algae.

Heriberto Cerutti and Ed Cahoon of UNL and the Nebraska Coalition for Algal Biology and Biotechnology are studying ways to understand and improve the internal processes that regulate triglyceride production.

To begin to address algae's growth paradox, Cerutti and his graduate students Joseph Msane and Anji Reddy Konda altered the genetic makeup of a species in the Chlamydomonas genus to induce it to accumulate fat under normal, nitrogen-abundant conditions. The Cahoon lab performed fat analyses. This accomplishment had a familiar setback: The cells stopped reproducing. However, the researchers gained vital information on gene expression and gene regulation.

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  • wild type and genetically modified alga strains
A wild type alga strain (left images) and genetically modified alga (right images).
Heriberto Cerutti, University of Nebraska

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