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Genetic Engineering May Make Algae a Real Biofuel Contender for the Future

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Picture: ilirjan rrumbullaku

So far the biofuel game has belonged to two crops—corn and soybeans. But, a third organism is ready to play. Kind of.

According to Bloomberg writer Jennifer A Dlouhy, after eight years of painstaking work, researches from J. Craig Venter’s Synthetic Genomics in collaboration with Exxon (a relationship which started in 2009) may have finally found a way to turn algae into a viable biofuel source.

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Algae, which has been on scientists’ radars for a long time now as a biofuel candidate, traditionally lacks enough oils and fats that a viable biofuel source requires; corn and soybeans have what’s needed, but algae is a more sustainable option because “it can grow in salt water and thrive under harsh environmental conditions. And the oil contained in algae potentially could be processed in conventional refineries,” according to Dlouhy.

Through advanced cell engineering, the team from J. Craig Venter’s Synthetic Genomics has reported that they were able “to more than double the fatty lipids inside a strain of algae,” reports Dlouhy.

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After depriving algae of nitrogen, the scientists were able to pinpoint the single gene tasked with monitoring the amount of oil the algae produces.

“Using the CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technique, the researchers were able to winnow a list of about 20 candidates to a single regulator — they call it ZnCys — and then to modulate its expression,” according to Dlouhy.

The advanced cell engineering increased the typical oil production of algae—10 to 15 percent—to over 40 percent, reports Dlouhy.

Although this is a critical breakthrough and a much needed step in the evolution of algae into a viable biofuel source, “commercialization of this kind of modified algae is decades away,” according to Dlouhy.

News Source: Bloomberg