A scanning electron microscope image of the diatom Thalassiosira pseudonana.

A scanning electron microscope image of the diatom Thalassiosira pseudonana.

Scripps Institution of Oceanography researchers have developed a method to genetically engineer a growth component in marine algae used to produce biofuel. The researchers targeted fat-reducing enzymes inside diatoms, and metabolically engineered a way to increase lipids without compromising growth. Researchers said the genetically altered strains could be produced in other species as well as diatoms.

Scripps graduate student Emily Trentacoste led the research efforts to manipulate the ratio between the growth of algae and their production of lipid oils that can be used for fuel. “We have shown that engineering this pathway is a unique and practical approach for increasing lipid yields,” Trentacoste said.

The study was reported in this week’s online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The research has also led to advances in the speed of algal biofuel crop production.

Mark Hildebrand, Scripps marine biology professor and study co-author, called the achievement huge. “Five years ago people said you would never be able to get more lipids without affecting growth negatively. This paper shows that there isn’t an intrinsic barrier and gives us hope of more new things that we can try – it opens the door to a lot more work to be done.”

The study’s other co-authors include William Gerwick, Roshan Shrestha, Sarah Smith, Corine Gle, and Aaron Hartmann. The National Institutes of Health, California Energy Commission, Air Force Office of Scientific Research, Department of Energy, and National Science Foundation supported the research.