ISU Researcher to Genetically Alter Three Characteristics of Algae
Martin Spalding, a researcher at Iowa State University, has secured $4.3 million in funding from the US Department of Energy to genetically alter a strain of algae (Chlamydomonas) to “improve oil yield, growth rate and offer better thermal resistance.”
A more immediate goal for the 3-year project is to develop one or more strains that can compete for commercial biofuels production. “The algae we’re working with currently are not competitive with other strains for biofuels,” he said. More important, he’d like to have a platform breeding stock at the end of the project that can be used to respond quickly to biofuel needs that may arise. “We hope to bring this alga to the point where we can tailor it to meet the needs of the industry,” he said.
Chlamydomonas alga is ideal for such research because it is the only type with a well-defined, mapped genome. “It’s an alga that’s been a model system used in biochemistry and genetics for years,” he said. “We have a sequenced genome, we understand the metabolism and we have the tools available to us to work with this alga.” It’s also manipulable and scientists can create extensive mutant screens, from which they can select mutants that are able to produce more oil, Spalding said. “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,” he said.
The strains will be grown in closed systems to ensure that these new strains of algae are released into the environment.