Creating a better blue-green algae for sustainable fuel

Magnified images compare two cyanobacterium.
Electron micrographs of (A) Synechococcus UTEX 2973, the fastest-doubling cyanobacteria, and (B) Synechococcus PCC 7942, a slower-growing model organism. (Image credit: The Pakrasi Lab at Washington University in St. Louis.)

Cyanobacteria — blue-green algae — are a bit of a double-edged sword. Some varieties create blue-green algae blooms, which are increasing in frequency in Midwestern waterways due to climate change and nutrient runoff. These algae can be toxic if humans or pets ingest them. But blue-green algae also increasingly are being studied as a source for cleaner energy.

A team of researchers at Washington University in St. Louis received $1.7 million from the National Science Foundation to study how to build a better cyanobacterium capable of converting solar energy and carbon dioxide into useful byproducts, such as fuel, food, or animal feed.

“Cyanobacteria are photosynthetic and can thrive with sunlight and consume carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas,” Himadri Pakrasi, Washington University professor, said in a news release.

The researchers will use state-of-the-art genome editing technology to rework the genes of a fast-growing type of cyanobacterium. This strain has the fastest doubling time — the period of time for the organisms to double in quantity — of any known blue-green algae species. It also has the highest rate of biomass production, making it ideal for creating biofuel.

The researchers aim to figure out which genetic characteristics contribute to the cyanobacteria’s fast growth and more efficient photosynthesis process compared with other strains. They could potentially use this knowledge to alter other types of slower-growing cyanobacteria to improve their productivity and create a sustainable biomass feedstock for fuel.

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