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LANL, UW mining lipids from algae

February 25, 2016
AlgaeIndustryMagazine.com

Chrysochromulina tobin cell structure

Chrysochromulina tobin cell structure. (A) Scanning electron micrograph of C. tobin. Two flagella are visible (marked F) along with the prominent coiled haptonema (white arrow). Scale bar represents 2.5 microns. (B) Electron micrograph of whole cell: Lipid body (LB); Mitochondrion (M); Chloroplast (C); Scale bar represents 500 nanometers. Photos by Steven Barlow, UCSD

Some species of algae naturally produce lipids in abundance, making them a desirable feedstock for lipid-based fuels. These strains of algae live in both saltwater and fresh water environments and if they are carefully cultivated, they could be coerced into making enough lipids to fuel automobiles and planes. Given the value of energy stored in lipids, much research as been dedicated to investigating the use of lipids for diesel fuel or other routes of energy production.

Scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) and the University of Washington (UW) are exploring the use of lipids for energy: as a starting material for creating biofuels. The research team has targeted the genome of a less-studied algae strain called Chrysochromulina tobin, a “Haptophyte” which is known to be a prolific producer of lipids.

While researchers wanted to learn more about this strain’s lipid production and potential for use in biofuels, they have also found new antimicrobial compounds produced by the algae, and proteins that are sensitive to light and might be used to control cells in living tissues.

In order to understand how C. tobin could be used to produce lipids for fuel, the research team sought to understand more about its natural lipid production processes. The team studied lipid production over a 24-hour period of day and night, and sequenced the genome and the transcriptome (which is made up of the messenger RNA molecules) of C. tobin.

C.tobin utilizes a long appendage, called a haptonema, to capture bacterial prey for consumption. Photo by Chloe Deodato, University of Washington

C.tobin utilizes a long appendage, called a haptonema, to capture bacterial prey for consumption. Photo by Chloe Deodato, University of Washington

The objective of this study was to determine the link between the day-night cycle and the production of the lipids, and to see if they could understand which genes are being used to make the lipids.

The team discovered that lipid production was tightly regulated by two distinct groups of genes. The first pathway, which builds the individual fatty acid molecules, displayed genes that were up-regulated during the day. The second pathway combines individual fatty acids to form triacylglycerols, which are high-energy storage molecules. Genes in the second pathway were found to be up-regulated during the night.

“Knowing which genetic pathways are used when the cell is producing the most lipids will help us optimize lipid production for biofuels efforts,” said Blake Hovde, a postdoctoral researcher at Los Alamos.

Armed with this information, the team can embark on a thorough understanding of how lipid production is regulated, and therefore how to modify the pathways to increase it. Since lipids are an excellent source of energy, making genetic modifications in the algae to maximize lipid production is one objective that could significantly impact the viability of lipid-based biofuels.

This method of sequencing and evaluating transcriptome data is useful for many types of research, but the Los Alamos team has been using it for biofuel applications, sequencing many different algae strains to learn about the best way(s) to grow algae.

The DOE National Alliance for Advanced Biofuels and Bioproducts (NAABB), the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), the Los Alamos Institutional Computing Resource sponsored different aspects of the Los Alamos work. The research supports the Lab’s Energy Security and Global Security mission areas and the Science of Signatures science pillar.

Reference: “Genome Sequence and Transcriptome Analyses of Chrysochromulina tobin: Metabolic Tools for Enhanced Algal Fitness in the Prominent Order Prymnesiales (Haptophyceae).” PLOS Genetics; published online September 23, 2015; doi: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1005469.

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