St. Louis researchers launch algae research

By Susanne Retka Schill | June 09, 2009
Posted June 25, 2009

Researchers at two centers in St. Louis are gearing up to launch five-year research programs on algae, backed by U.S. DOE grants. The Donald Danforth Plant Science Center received $15 million and Washington University $20 million from the DOE's fund for Energy Frontier Research Centers. A total of 46 centers were funded from a pool of some 260 applications.

Danforth's Center for Advanced Biofuels Systems will be led by Richard Sayre, who also serves as director of the Enterprise Rent-A-Car Institute for Renewable Fuels. Sayre said the new team of researchers will be studying the conversion of energy captured from photosynthesis in the single cell algae and how it is channeled into oil. With algae oil production ranging from 5 percent to 70 percent lipids, the researchers will be working to identify ways to increase oil production. "We'll take apart the system step by step and develop mechanisms to work around the bottlenecks," he explained. The researchers hope to identify catalysts and enzymes that could be engineered into the organism to improve oil yields.

Robert Blankenship, professor of biology and chemistry, will direct the Washington University Photosynthetic Antenna Research Center which will use its DOE support to delve into the science of photosynthesis and how light energy is harvested using algae as the model. Blankenship will be coordinating the efforts of 16 other principal investigators from around the world. The Washington University project will focus on the biophysics of light while the Danforth Center project focuses on biochemical conversion of that light into oil. Both programs are hiring personnel and organizing to officially launch the programs in August.

"There's a growing nexus of research here in the St. Louis area, based around the Danforth Center and Washington University in St. Louis that may help define how the algal biofuel industry develops," said Dave Claborn, vice president marketing and communications for The Missouri Partnership, an economic development group.
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