Jun 20, 2017

Engineered algae can finally produce enough oil for biofuel


A collaboration between Craig Venter's Synthetic Genomics and ExxonMobil has yielded "a breakthrough" in efforts to create biofuels from algae. Researchers report they have engineered a strain of algae that can produce twice as much fat — essentially oil — but can still grow at its normal rate.

Why it matters: For decades, scientists have tried to produce oil from fast-growing algae to replace or supplement fossil fuels. One challenge that this study appears to have overcome using genetic engineering has been that algae require a lot of nutrients to grow quickly but produce more fat when they are starved of the same nutrients. That tradeoff limits how much biofuel can be made overall.

What they did: Researchers knew that when algae has limited access to nitrogen, it produces more fatty lipids so they looked in the algae species Nannochloropsis gaditana for genes that are inhibited when there is less nitrogen and that also regulate the production of lipids. It took them almost a decade, but they found one and altered it using CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing, ultimately creating a strain that produced at least 40% oil content compared to 20% in natural algae.

Next steps: The strain would have to be successfully grown outside the lab (in sunlight and the elements) in industrial-scale amounts before it could be commercialized. Those technical needs along with regulatory hurdles and the relatively low price of gasoline currently, which isn't incentivizing a switch to biofuels, mean it could be a while before we see algae-produced oil on the market.

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Coronavirus updates: New global case numbers surpass China's

Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins, the CDC, and China's Health Ministry. Note: China numbers are for the mainland only and U.S. numbers include repatriated citizens.

The novel coronavirus is now affecting every continent but Antarctica and the WHO said Wednesday the number of new cases reported outside China has exceeded those inside the country for the first time.

The big picture: COVID-19 has killed more than 2,800 people and infected over 82,000 others in some 50 countries and territories. As Denmark and Estonia reported their first cases Thursday, Scott Morrison, prime minister of Australia — which has 23 confirmed infections — told a news conference, "The risk of a global pandemic is very much upon us."

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Mass shooting in Milwaukee: What we know so far

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett in 2012. Photo: John Gress/Corbis via Getty Images

Six people died in a shooting at the Molson Coors Brewing Company in Milwaukee Molson Coors on Wednesday, including the 51-year-old gunman, Mayor Tom Barrett told reporters at an evening press conference with local police.

Details: All of the victims worked at the brewery complex, as did the shooter who died of "an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound, police confirmed in a statement late Wednesday.

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WHO official leads criticism of Trump's coronavirus response

President Trump with members of the new coronavirus task force, including Vice President Mike Pence at the White House on Wednesday. Photo: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, special advisor to the director general of the World Health Organization, told MSNBC Wednesday he found "most" of what President Trump said at his briefing on the novel coronavirus "incoherent."

The big picture: As the number of confirmed cases reaches 60 in the U.S., the top health professional — who was a health policy adviser in the Obama administration — is among several leading figures, in particular, Democrats, to criticize the president for his response to the outbreak.

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