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Researchers Genetically Engineer Algae to Increase Oil Yields by Up to 50%: Should We Be Concerned?

By Stephen Lacey  

"Researchers Genetically Engineer Algae to Increase Oil Yields by Up to 50%: Should We Be Concerned?"

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ISU photo by Bob Elbert

Franken-algae may be key to reducing carbon emissions. But do they represent a different environmental threat?

Researchers at Iowa State University say they’ve unlocked a genetic pathway in algae that can dramatically increase the amount of CO2 consumed by the organisms, thus helping recycle more of the greenhouse gas and increasing oil yields for non-food based biofuels by as much as 50%.

Algae use two genes — LCIA and LCIB — to help them regulate CO2 intake. When growing in low-CO2 environments, these two genes are activated to help the organisms take in more of the gas to their cells. But when CO2 concentrations are high, the genes are shut off.

Researchers led by Iowa State Professor of Genetics Martin Spalding figured out how to keep those genes turned on all the time, turning this strain of algae (Chlamydomonas reinhardtii) into a CO2-sucking, biomass-producing machine:

When the two genes were expressed together, Spalding was surprised to see the 50 to 80 percent biomass increase.

“Somehow these two genes are working together to increase the amount of carbon dioxide that’s converted through photosynthesis into biomass by the algae under conditions where you would expect there would already be enough carbon dioxide,” said Spalding.

The excess biomass naturally becomes starch through the photosynthesis process, and increases the biomass starch by around 80 percent.

By using some existing mutated genes, Spalding can instruct the algae to make oil instead of starch. This process requires more energy and the process results in around a 50 percent increase in oil biomass.

While this research is promising for limiting carbon emissions and expanding biofuels, it’s not really new. Genetically modified algae are a key part of the “secret sauce” of companies like Sapphire Energy, Solazyme, Synthetic Genomics and TransAlgae, which are all toying with different genetic changes in order to increase oil production.

But what if these organisms — which can very easily leave the lab on clothing, skin or through the air — escape into the natural environment and contaminate the gene pool of wild algae and dramatically increase growth rates?

Researchers say they’ve modified the organisms in different ways to prevent them from thriving the wild. Some are bred with “suicide” genes; others are modified to be domesticated and are unable to live outside the lab.

So far, there have been no cases of genetically modified algae causing problems. However, the Departments of Energy and Agriculture have avoided comprehensive environmental reviews of modified strains.

Industry representatives say it’s important not to add costly reviews at a time when the industry is starting to achieve scale, and say the risks can easily be minimized. Others, like bioenergy expert David Haberman, criticize the government for not putting more thought into potential impacts, saying “the lack of study of the potential hazards is of great concern.”

Haberman has been warning of the threat of genetically modified algae for years — saying rogue organisms could disrupt fisheries, hurt recreation and make people sick. “There’s little oversight and no regulatory regime,” he says.

Genetic modification will continue to be a major part of algae-to-biofuels research. This latest finding from Iowa State is proof of the major positive impact it could have on expanding biofuels production.

But it’s also a reminder that the potential unintended consequences can be equally strong.

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29 Responses to Researchers Genetically Engineer Algae to Increase Oil Yields by Up to 50%: Should We Be Concerned?

  1. Lionel A says:

    So this effort is to make more bio-fuel which once going on a large scale will simply rotate the large amounts of CO2 faster through its own cycle. It will do nothing to draw down the excess of CO2 or ameliorate the current high levels.

    That aside, I suppose these developers are aware of the probability for algae blooms with the associated toxins that could be produced.

    The ‘potential for unintended consequences’ indeed but when has this ever been much of a consideration to those in the energy business. A business which has demonstrated again and again that the bottom line is more important than taking precautions against the expected unexpected.

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

      I’m sure that there has been one or more sci-fi stories along these lines. Novel organism escapes and consumes all the oxygen, or similar. The drive to keep growth going at all costs is the ethos of the cancer, and it will kill us, it’s just a matter of time. We’ll finally go too far in perverting nature to our greedy ends, or the greedy ends of the 1% to be more precise.

  2. Lionel A says:

    I forgot to add, beware of The Blob.

  3. bill waterhouse says:

    Like Ice Nine but with algae? We would never be able to undo a release of genetically modified algae that could survive in the oceans.

    • Lionel A says:

      Water is one amazing substance that those who have touched on Physical Chemistry know can be turned into various forms of ice according to pressure. If you think you have seen the whole phase diagram for water then have a look into Physical Chemistry.

  4. Sasparilla says:

    Its good to know our “friends of the industry” regulators are staying away from the possible environmental risks of engineered algea escaping into the environment.

    In 1984 a strain of alga known as Caulerpa Taxifolia was released (accidentally presumably) at the location of the Monaco Oceanographic Museum (its used ornamentally in aquariums because its pretty, nothing eats it and was probably dumped during tank water changes into the ocean) in the Mediterranean Sea, by 2001 it was carpeting (completely covering) 30,000 acres of the sea floor killing all other plants (and being toxic to fish) with almost no fish left in these areas. It has only continued spreading since then with no natural predators there.

    It is called often called Killer Algae because of its affects on the ocean flora and fauna where it carpets.

    So sleep well, know that these folks trying to make an oil substitute selling for lots of money via engineered Algae (in great secrecy) have our backs on the environmental side and our government regulators who should be watching them there are actively avoiding doing just that (for strategic and other less palatable reasons).

    After what humanity has done with Caulerpa Taxifolia, what could go wrong with Algea whose DNA we’ve messed with?

  5. Raul M. says:

    Canada has a way to replenish the oilsands?

  6. Jose says:

    I’m extremely skeptical that these new strains would be able to outcompete wild strains which have been involved in cutthrough evoluntionary competition for hundreds of millions of years. What is the chance that the targetted genes haven’t undergone mutation billions of times before in the wild? Astronomicaly slim I’d say.

  7. Mary says:

    So nobody here has ever worked in a biology department?

    We’ve been modifying yeast strains for decades now. Anyone seen yeast blobs taking over the planet? No. Although that guy who made his own yeast strains for beer may have some in his basement too.

    And the damn fly people can never keep their flies in their labs. Yet it has not caused environmental havoc anywhere. I worked at a transgenic mouse facility. So far no giant nude mice have been sighted in the wild.

    Of course it should be monitored, and it should be done wisely, but let’s not let sci-fi fears stop necessary progress, please?

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

      The question is, ‘Is it ‘necessary’ and is it ‘Progress’? And there are numerous examples of escaped novel organisms causing chaos, including Roundup resistant superweeds, the offspring of GE perverted science. Genetic manipulation is dangerous and unpredictable, and one mega-disaster may be enough to hasten our end, given the plethora of other disasters we face.

  8. Theodore says:

    There is a time and a place for genetic engineering. The time is somewhere in the far distant future and the place is on another planet, one that can be temporarily sterilized if the experiments fail to give the desired result.

  9. Gnobuddy says:

    @7 (Mary): “So far no giant nude mice have been sighted in the wild.”
    —————————————
    Perhaps you’re right about giant nude mice. But have you forgotten about bio-engineered corn, which has now appeared in fields all over the world – fields that were never supposed to contain GMO corn?

    Here are a couple of Web articles showing how GMO corn can contaminate nearby corn fields:

    1) http://www.commondreams.org/headlines02/0219-06.htm

    2) http://www.progressive.org/0901/lil0901.html

    There have already been lawsuits where the owners of patented GMO corn strains sued farmers whose crops turned out to contain the patented modified genes – against their knowledge. And now some farmers have filed a counter-suit. Anyone who wishes to continue eating should have some interest in this story, as the punitive lawsuits by Monsanto are putting farmers – already struggling to survive – out of business:

    http://www.triplepundit.com/2011/04/battleground-planting-rights-monsanto-sued-farmers/

    -Gnobuddy

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

      We have a group of giant nude mice living in the bottom paddock. They are German I think, hence the penchant for naturism. They make good neighbours, but party a bit noisily.

  10. Rice dog says:

    So far, none of our GMOs have successfully competed with nature’s own creations for very long. Just the opposite. Most GMOs have a relatively short lived benefit before succumbing to allelopathic influences.

  11. Dan Miller says:

    Lionel:

    Algae-based biofuels help the planet by replacing fossil fuels (which were mostly made from algae 100 million years ago). Bio-fuels are made directly or indirectly by CO2 and sunlight and the CO2 is re-released into the air when the fuel is burned. That is better than digging up carbon from underground and putting it into the atmosphere.

    • Lionel A says:

      Be that as it may, and I appreciate well how bio-fuels of this nature are produced and also how conventional fossil fuels are formed – heck the big clue is in the name, your post does not provide an adequate counter to my points.

      Besides, I doubt for one minute that bio-fuels produced thus will prevent the extraction of fossil fuel as rapidly as now, or at a faster rate in the future.

      Furthermore, and I repeat, such production of bio-fuel will do nothing to draw down CO2 to ameliorate the warming in the pipeline from already elevated levels since the start of the industrial revolution. And even before that with the rapid deforestation of large swathes of countryside to encourage agricultural expansion.

      As a corollary to that, deep history is replete with examples of how wherever man has gone and increased his ‘productivity’ wholesale extinctions have followed. The production of bio-fuels in the manner under discussion threatens to add more cuts to the death by a thousand cuts of the ecological web that supports us, nourishes us and which provides essential, but economically overlooked, drudgery release that can make the difference between living and existing.

      Also, as a person interested in maritime history, and a Brit’ at that, I am only too painfully aware of how much forest and woodland was lost to satisfy the needs of the maritime forces during the days of sail.

  12. M Tucker says:

    Come on. We humans excel at unintended consequences or underestimated consequences. That is why we have multiple environmental and health problems expanding beyond any reasonable capability to address them. All we can do is our level best to evaluate the safety of our new technologies given the current knowledge we have then work like hell to clean up any messes, problems, or disasters on the backend. What about the new genetically engineered corn that is now in the field designed to reduce costs of fermentation to produce ethanol? The experts say it is totally safe…I say TBD…and we all proceed like the man who jumps from a 20 story building and as he passes each floor he proclaims: “so far so good.”

  13. rjs says:

    biological processes that work well on a laboratory scale often encounter limiting factors when scaling up to an industrial application…since these algae depend on photosynthesis, i’d bet the limit to this process is available solar energy..

  14. Mary says:

    @Gnobuddy: besides aerating well-feed foodies, and driving donations to activist groups and lawyers, there’s no indication of any harmful effects on the environment or on health from any GMO.

    In fact, reduced pesticides usage, reduced tilling and soil loss, reduced energy use, reduced land requirements, and increased biodiversity have all been shown. Oh, and there’s also benefits to farmer health.

    But let’s be sure to overlook those things for our philosophical problems with GMOs.

    http://news.sciencemag.org/sciencenow/2009/01/12-04.html
    http://pamelaronald.blogspot.com/2008/08/10-things-about-ge-crops-to-scratch.html

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

      Genetically engineered organisms have been quite disastrous, despite industry propaganda otherwise. GE crops have led to the appearance of ‘superweeds’ immune to glyphoshate, which require nasty herbicides to control them. The spread of GE Roundup-Ready crops has led to a huge increase in the use of glyphosphate, a particularly destructive herbicide. Soils drenched in glyphosphate (plus the ‘adjuvants”included to increase efficacy)see huge drops in soil populations of arthropods, the loss of beneficial fungi and the proliferation of dangerous ones like Fusarium. In areas like Argentina’s soy-belt, where much Roundup is used there have been increases in human disease and miscarriages. Crop yields have not matched industry propaganda, and in India have contributed to thousands of suicides of farmers heavily indebted to pay for these expensive failures. BT crops have been linked to the disappearance of beneficial insects, and where target insect pests have been reduced, new pest species have filled the ecological niche. The assertion that GE crops have had no deleterious effects is pure corporate Newspeak, as cynical as the preposterous lie that these GE crops are needed to feed the world or end blindness in the poor world.

  15. Bill Goedecke says:

    I have always been skeptical of GMOs in agriculture. They have not been well-regulated. Big players in the GMO industry have had undue influence. For those who follow this stuff, the Monsanto vs Percy Schmeiser case in Canada was especially alarming. Yet, I expect an open minded approach to science and I don’t like this article beginning with the prejudicial term Franken-algae. Alarmingly, we have no real substitute for gasoline as a liquid based fuel. There has to be work done here, with proper regulation. Let’s cut the negativity.

  16. David B. Benson says:

    Quite a different between GMO algae and GMO maize. The latter is still cultivated intensively, with all the (perhaps) unanticipated consequences.

    GMO algae will have a tough go of it in the wild just as maize, GMO or not, does.

  17. Lou Grinzo says:

    Algae-based fuels is a topic I’ve been quite interested in for some time, as it relates to both peak oil and climate change. My take:

    1. Economics is everything. As soon as someone figures out a way to make algae fuel at a market price that’s competitive with petroleum-based fuels, we’ll do it, most notably in the US.

    2. When new algae can compete with the remains of ancient algae (i.e. petroleum) is as much a function of putting a responsible price on carbon as it is a matter of reducing the production cost of algae fuel. As always, it’s relative prices that matter when assessing substitute goods. The general trend right now is for the higher of the two prices to continue dropping and the lower and much more volatile price to keep rising, possibly with an assist from public policy. Eventually those lines will cross.

    3. GMO concerns won’t stop us. Lawmakers and CEOs will all claim that this is the start of a shiny new future that’s environmentally responsible and good domestic policy (less money sent abroad, etc.), and that sufficient safeguards are in place, with lots of hand waving. Whether those safeguards prove to be essentially true or merely self-delusional statements leading to an Algae Fukushima will remain to be seen. It will take decades to know for sure, just as those nuclear plants in Japan operated without major incident for a long time, right up until the day they didn’t.

    4. Recycling CO2 could indeed be a major wedge in cutting our net emissions. Start marketing algae fuel on a significant scale (which implies price competitiveness), and it will crowd out some petroleum products and reduce the carbon footprint of the transportation sector, in particular. Will this be a big wedge or just a sliver? Plug in your own set of assumptions and you’ll get your own guesstimate.

    5. The most attractive alternatives for de-carbonizing transportation are things we can’t do because of economics and/or politics (i.e. mandate very high CAFE standards in just a few years or simply tax the heck out of gas guzzlers to drive people to more efficient cars. There is also a non-trivial effect from the on-road lifetime of the average vehicle, which is about 18 years; you simply can’t turn over a huge fleet like that (in the US) quickly. Therefore, a near-zero-carbon, completely compatible replacement for gasoline or diesel fuel is very important, and algae seems to be the prime candidate to deliver.

    6. We’re way off the edge of the map with this technology. It’s a festival of uncertainty. I have no clue how it will play out, but I’m highly confident we’ll try really hard to make it work. I hope we succeed.

  18. Any practical system for using algae to convert sunlight to biofuels will involve very large, shallow dams, preferably containing salt water. The algae from these dams will inevitably get into the environment. “Safety” that depends on the algae staying in the dams is a myth. The algae must be safe outside of the dams.

  19. Don Lindsay says:

    The last two times I heard this claim, I replied that it was pretty ill-informed. The comments above haven’t changed that opinion.

    These organisms are being engineered to do something that isn’t in their best interests. That is, they are turning perfectly good food into oil instead of turning it into offspring. If these critters escape into the wild, they will be out-competed. Period. And if they persist at a low level, instead of vanishing utterly, who cares ? It’s not as if they’re constructing a toxin, or something non-biodegradable, or something not already present in the wild. Their parent stock didn’t come from outer space: it came from a swamp.

    As for the comment about keeping them in large, shallow ponds, that’s not true. Only some of the proposals involve that. The major worry about open ponds isn’t that the contents will escape, but that wild biota will blow in and take over the ponds. To be precise, that isn’t the worry, that’s the expectation. The worry is that wild stuff will take over a reseeded pond *quickly*. If the wild stuff takes over slowly, that’s not a problem, because then the dominant problem will be mutants, who hit on the idea of not wasting their resources making all that useless oil. Each pond, or each sealed bioreactor, will eventually get taken over by useless mutants, and have to be cleaned out and reseeded. That’s a standard part of the cost models.

    If these engineered organisms aren’t long-term-viable in a sealed bottle, then it’s hardly likely that they’re long-term viable back in the swamp their parents came from.

  20. Shilpa says:

    synthetic genomics can be used to alter the basic genome constitute present in algae which will enhance the oil production of the algae as the synthetic genome will contain the oil producing genes..