AP Biology class blog for discussing current research in Biology

Tag: Biofuel

The Multi-Talented Algae

Many of our natural resources that our planet has gifted us are useful for alternative purposes, including scientific ones. Although some go overlooked, like algae, we continue to appreciate and learn how to use the resources we have. All algas, as plant cells, are proficient photosynthesizers. Algae is found all over the world, and is able to grow at incredible speeds, if placed in the right environment of light, water, and the required nutrients. A professor by the name of Pierre Crozet, who works at Sorbonne University in Paris, is steadily trying to place algae back on the biotechnology map. His research is mainly focused on microalgae, as it is easy to engineer and take care of. It requires less room and nutrients than that of land plants. As our world is struggling with sustainability, the science community is quickly coming up with solutions to aid our planet. Algae is one of the perfect candidates, as it can gain biomass only needing water, carbon dioxide, and nutrients. Crozet says he will soon be able to replace bacteria and yeast with algae, creating a more sustainable and reusable system. Unfortunately, algae’s track record as an alternative to both yeast and bacteria is relatively poor due to their slower growth rate. 

In the early 2010’s many startup companies started with the mission that Crozet is now set on. They claimed to be reaching a breakthrough which would offer algal biofuel as a replacement for the fossil fuels we use today. Those companies struggled and either went bankrupt or decided to change their scientific focus to something more plausible and cost effective. As the world becomes more desperate for alternative fuel solutions, algae might be the most realistic of them all. The only setback would be the slow growth rate, but if the world commits to algae as our fuel source, and access all our resources, it shouldn’t be long before we are totally regenerative. A research scientist at the NSW Department of Primary Industries named Hugh Goold said, “Investors have to know that you are going to produce a product cheaper than other people can. It isn’t worthwhile to produce something in algae instead of E. coli ‘just because.’” As we have seen in the past, this world is one that is most often not open to change, and completely relying on algae as our fuel source is a big, yet perfect one. 

Photobioreactor PBR 4000 G IGV Biotech

In addition to algae being used as a fuel source, companies all over the world are using or trying to implement the use of photosynthesizers into the manufacture of vitamins, food, fashion, and other products. Companies like Living Ink are trying to create an eco-friendly alternative to the printer ink we use everyday using cyanobacteria. Unilever, a mass food producer has taken the first step toward the use of algae by partnering with a company based in the UK called Algenuity. A company called Martek Biosciences uses algae to manufacture critical omega-3 fatty acids for dietary supplementation, especially for pregnant moms (like mine did!).  All of these companies are paving the way for changes that have taken a long time to figure out, but ultimately should help with the sustainability of our planet. With all these companies working to better the world with sustainable product manufacturing, hopefully we will be able to alter the fate that our planet is facing. 

The Perfect “Enzyme Cocktail”



Photo taken by Vincecate

There is currently a great desire worldwide to create fuels from plants (that are abundant and not eaten).  For background on this topic, click here.  This process is possible, but making the fuel is expensive, time consuming, and difficult.  However, chemists at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have done research to develop a new, highly improved method for procuring economical, more realistic biofuels.

The most crucial step in the biofuel production process (making fuel from plants such as corn stalks and switchgrass) is the break down of sugar polymers into monomers, which can then be made into fuel compounds.  Plants contain energy, which they store in their carbon bonds.  This energy can be converted to fuel if these bonds are broken.  However, lignocellulose, which holds the plants together structurally, is difficult to break apart.

Finding a more efficient way to break down the sugars in plants would greatly lower the cost of biofuel production.  Trichoderma reesei is a fungus that can “churn out enzymes that chew through molecules like complex sugars”.  Thus, the fungus produces many enzymes that can help to procure fuel from plants.  New research is being done to find which of these enzymes (called glycoside hydrolase) work most efficiently together and individually at different temperatures, pressures, and pH levels in an effort to reach maximum efficiency in the process.  Chemist Aaron Wright said, “Identifying exactly which enzymes are doing most of the work you need done is crucial for making this an economical process.”

This procedure of tracking each enzyme through each stage of a complicated process would normally take months to complete with regular enzyme testing (perhaps like the testing we did in class, but much more complex!).  However, Wright’s team created a chemical probe that allows intense testing to be accomplished in only a few days.

As the price and sources of gas are such common concerns today, I am curious to see if this experiment will come to fruition to produce an environmentally friendly, sustainable, efficient, and economical source of fuel.

Original Article

Fat Worms Show Signs of Biofuel Advancements


Image by bramblejungle on Flickr

Scientists from Michigan State University appear to have made a significant advancement in biofuel research, at least if some chubby worms are to be believed. The scientists are attempting to use a gene found in Algae involved in oil production to engineer plants that can store oil not just in their seeds but in the stem and leaves also. Biofuel production has typically focused on plant’s seeds because that is where oil occurs naturally, but plants that can be engineered to store oil throughout the entire plant could hold significantly more oil than plants that can’t.

The scientists tested their new plants by using them to feed Caterpillar Larvae. The Caterpillars fed with the oily leaves from the enhanced plants gained more weight than those fed with regular plant leaves. Christopher Benning, a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at MSU, said “If oil can be extracted from leaves, stems and seeds, the potential energy capacity of plants may double. Further, if algae can be engineered to continuously produce high levels of oil, rather than only when they are under stress, they can become a viable alternative to traditional agricultural crops.”

With these advancements in biofuel production, how much longer do you think it will be until Biofuels finally catch up with Fossil Fuels?

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