Biofuels breakthrough? Mechanism behind algae oil production revealed

A Japanese research team has revealed the oil synthesis mechanism in microalgae cells, a discovery which could aid in the development of biofuels.

The amount of biomass on earth is approximately ten times the amount of energy currently consumed on the planet, and half of that biomass grows in aquatic environments, according to a University of Kobe press release. Ocean based biomass such as microalgae can produce oil without using up arable land and drinking water.

Microalgae cells divide quickly, meaning they can be harvested faster than land based biomass. They can also be grown and harvested in any season, meaning they could offer a more stable energy supply.

A number of species of algae are capable of producing large amounts of oil in the form of lipids. Now, thanks to a research team led by Professor Hasunuma Tomohisa and Academic Researcher Kato Yuichi, both from the Kobe University Graduate School of Science, Technology and Innovation; the metabolic changes occurring on a molecular level during algae oil production have been recorded.

The study focused on Chlamydomonas sp. JSC4, a species of green algae harvested in brackish water. This particular species of algae is known for its high growth rate and high production of lipids. The team’s research revealed that when the algae were incubated in a liquid comprised of 1-2% salt water, the amount of oil produced increased, and the amount of carbohydrates decreased. On the other hand, when no saltwater was present there was a decrease in oil production and an increase in carbohydrate production.

Published in the Journal Scientific Reports, the discovery of the mechanism behind algae oil production could help the biofuels industry by informing and improving methods of algae cultivation. Hasunuma, Kato and colleagues are continuing their research by looking for ways to increase sustainable oil production through developing more efficient cultivation methods and genetic engineering.

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