Iowa State researchers to stack traits in algae

By Ron Kotrba | January 19, 2010
Posted February 23, 2010

An Iowa State University genetics professor is using a $4.37 million grant to stack traits in algae, a process of genetic modification typically performed on common farm crops, such as corn, to increase production and resist insects.

Martin Spalding, ISU professor of genetics, development and cell biology, received the U.S. DOE grant as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and will use the funding to focus entirely on genetically manipulating one type of alga, Chlamydomonas, whose genome has already been mapped out.

Spalding hopes stacking Chlamydomonas' desirable traits will lead to more oil production and thermal resistance, ultimately developing a desirable feedstock for biodiesel and other renewable fuels production.

"We have a sequenced genome, we understand the metabolism, and we have the tools available to us to work with this alga," Spalding said. Much of the current research on algae is being conducted on wild strains that have certain desirable traits such as high oil yield, but Spalding said, "The limitation with that strategy is that it has no flexibility because the algae can't be manipulated genetically."

Since the Chlamydomonas genome is already mapped, however, work can be done to tailor the genetic makeup of this alga to meet the growing biofuel industry's needs.

"Rather than look for an alga that produces trait 'x' or 'y' and then trying to adapt each new strain to production, which is a very difficult process, we are manipulating Chlamydomonas to meet 'x' and 'y,'" Spalding said.

The study will last three years and its goal is to ultimately develop a micro-algal platform that will allow algae to be treated as a crop. "Our project will probably lead to increased production of basically vegetable oil that can be converted to biodiesel," Spalding said. "Using the same process we are using to increase that oil production, we also could divert the production into hydrocarbons, which are closer to petroleum."

ISU professors Frances M. Craig, Larry Halverson, Eve Wurtele and David Oliver, in addition to Purdue University researchers, are working with Spalding on this project.
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