Research

Sandia scientist engineers cyanobacteria for fuel

January 16, 2013, courtesy of Sue Holmes, Sandia News Media
AlgaeIndustryMagazine.com

Truman Fellow Anne Ruffing

Truman Fellow Anne Ruffing looks at a flask of cyanobacteria with precipitated fatty acid floating on top. She has engineered two strains of cyanobacteria to produce free fatty acids, a precursor to fuels, as she studies the direct conversion of carbon dioxide into biofuels by photosynthetic organisms. (Photo by Randy Montoya)

Sandia National Laboratories Truman Fellow Anne Ruffing has engineered two strains of cyanobacteria to produce free fatty acids, a precursor to liquid fuels, and has also found that the process cuts the bacteria’s production potential.

“Even if algae are not the end-term solution (to our fuel needs), I think they can contribute to getting us there,” Ruffing said. “Regardless of however you look at fossil fuels, they’re eventually going to run out. We have to start looking to the future now and doing research that we’ll need when the time comes.”

She has been studying the direct conversion of carbon dioxide into biofuels by photosynthetic organisms under a three-year Truman Fellowship that ends in January. She presented her project at a poster session in August and published her work on one strain, “Physiological Effects of Free Fatty Acid Production in Genetically Engineered Synechococcus elongatus PCC 7942,” as the cover article in the September 2012 issue of Biotechnology and Bioengineering.

Ruffing considers her studies as proof-of-concept work that demonstrates engineering cyanobacteria for free fatty acid (FFA) production and excretion. She wants to identify the best hydrocarbon targets for fuel production and the best model strain for genetic engineering, as well as gene targets to improve FFA production.

She is using cyanobacteria — blue-green algae — because they are easier to genetically manipulate than eukaryotic algae, the natural “oil”-producing photosynthetic microorganisms more commonly used for algal biofuels, and because cyanobacteria can be engineered to create a variety of target fuels. Genetically engineered cyanobacteria excrete FFA and allow fuel to be collected without harvesting the cyanobacteria. This lowers the requirement for nitrogen and phosphate and reduces costs. But current yields from engineered strains are too low for large-scale production.

In general, this is how the process works: Eukaryotic algae grow in a pond to the density needed, then producers must get rid of the water, collect the cells and break them open to get the fuel precursor inside. This precursor is isolated and purified, then chemically converted into biodiesel. Cyanobacteria excrete the fuel precursor outside the cell, so a separation process can remove the product without killing the cells. That eliminates the need to grow a new batch of algae each time, saving on nitrogen and phosphate.

While other research efforts have focused on metabolic engineering strategies to boost production, Ruffing wants to identify what physiological effects limit cell growth and FFA synthesis.

“You can’t really hope to continue to engineer it to produce more of the fatty acids until you address these unforeseen effects,” she said. “As much as you want to do the applied side of things, creating the strain, you can’t get away from the fundamental biology that’s necessary in order to do that.”

Much of our fundamental understanding of photosynthesis comes from cyanobacteria, but it’s only been in the past decade or so, with advances in gene manipulation and recombinant DNA technology, that they’ve been considered for fuel production, Ruffing said.

The strains she engineered for FFA production show reduced photosynthetic yields, degradation of chlorophyll-a and changes in light-harvesting pigments, Ruffing said. She saw some cell death and lower growth rates overall, and suspects the toxicity of unsaturated FFA and changes in membrane composition are responsible.

Now she’s looking at what genes are changing when cyanobacteria produce fatty acids. She’s creating mutants by knocking out certain genes or introducing or overexpressing genes to see how that affects the cell and fatty acid production.

“So I’m engineering the cell, then I’m trying to learn from the cell how to work with the cell to produce the fuel instead of trying to force it to produce something it doesn’t want to produce,” she said.

She’s producing FFA from Synechococcus elongatus PCC 7942 and Synechococcus sp. PCC 7002, chosen as so-called model organisms that have been studied for several decades and for which tools exist to manipulate their genes. She also is working with the two strains and a third, Synechocystis sp. PCC 6803, for biofuel toxicity screening.

Ruffing hopes to continue working on strain development after the fellowship ends. “It is possible that there’s a natural strain out there that could be a better option, so this is still pretty early research,” she said. “There’s a lot of exploration to do.”

More Like This…

HOME Algae Industry Jobs

Copyright ©2010-2013 AlgaeIndustryMagazine.com. All rights reserved. Permission required to reprint this article in its entirety. Must include copyright statement and live hyperlinks. Contact editorial@algaeindustrymagazine.com. A.I.M. accepts unsolicited manuscripts for consideration, and takes no responsibility for the validity of claims made in submitted editorial.

From The A.I.M. Archives

— Refresh Page for More Choices
Biomass abounds on Earth, as forests, fields, sewage and seaweed. But only a small fraction, mostly human or agricultural waste, can be harvested without posing environme...
Solazyme, Inc. has announced results for the fourth quarter and full year ended December 31, 2013. “2013 was a year of great progress for Solazyme as we readied our first...
Valensa International and Contract Biotics have announced that Contract Biotics has started construction of an additional six acres of algae production units at the compa...
One of 12 winners of the 2014 Lexus Design Award, the Ooho algae balloon was created by three London-based designers to contribute a solution to the rising number of plas...
Students from three Arizona universities will demonstrate their algae research projects at an Innovation Showcase May 1, in Arizona State University’s Sun Devil Fitness C...
Algenist®, Solazyme’s anti-aging skincare brand featuring microalgae, has announced its launch in Nordstrom locations throughout the United States. The launch into Nordst...
A team of six University of Calgary researchers has been awarded funding for their project, Cost Effective Biotechnology for Carbon Capture and Re-Use, based on the conce...
Santa Fe Community College has been awarded a $50,000, SEED Infrastructure Grant from the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), for commercial ...
Algal oil represents one of the significant segments within the omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA) ingredients market. Specifically, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is ...
Although the use of whole microalgae in animal diets has long been studied, the 
de-fatted biomass of microalgal species, derived from biofuel production research, has on...
In Phys.Org, Yu Yonehara notes the breakthrough research from the Tokyo Institute of Technology on the connection between early marine algae and the development of terres...
The Algae Biomass Organization (ABO) released the following statement calling on the EPA to include Carbon Capture and Utilization strategies in rules proposed June 2, 20...
Algae manufacturer Cyanotech Corporation has announced implementing three major initiatives to improve Astaxanthin production at their Kailua Kona, Hawaii-based cultivati...
Steven Mufson reports for the Washington Post that Algenol Biofuels estimates hackers have attempted to break into its computers 39 million times in four months this year...
Biofuels derived from the oils produced by algae may offer a low-cost sustainable alternative to fossil fuels. To achieve this goal, optimization of cost effective strate...
Perth, Western Australia-based Algae.Tec Limited has announced that the Reliance Group has converted the first tranche of options following the positive progress achieved...
Channelnewsasia.com reports on three young Spaniards who harvest seaweed, a culinary delicacy, as a way for them to stay out of Spain’s troubled financial waters. 35-year...
Researchers at the Paul Scherer Institute (PSI) in Wädenswil, Switzerland, have succeeded in producing energy-rich gas from microalgae, and in doing so have demonstrated ...