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.