The Moguls of Algae

May 20, 2013 |

mogulsNew, high-potential algae strain discovered in Colorado snowfields.

Should algae’s future nabobs and magnates be out there traversing the slopes?

Those whose family chronicles make reference to the Great Irish Potato Famine of 1845-49 and the subsequent starvation of more than 1 million and the emigration of at least another million — may take some comfort in the fact that a cousin of the infective microbial agent responsible for the potato blight, Phytophthora infestans, has been discovered in the Rocky Mountain snowfields and may have some transformative impact on biofuels development down the line.

A new strain of yellow-green algae, heterococcus sp. DN1, as examined in the pages of Biotechnology Progress, is found to grow at temperatures approaching freezing and to accumulate large intracellular stores of lipids. The strain is a member of the Stramenopiles, whose 100,000 member species include everything from one-celled plankton to giant kelp and Pacific rockweed.

Among the various extremophiles being sought by industry, there’s none so eagerly sought as much as a strain of algae that thrives in cold weather – and makes a lot of lipids. To date, one of the restraining factors in algae site selection has been the relative preference of most algae for warmer climates. One of the associated problems is that industrial sources of CO2, non-productive land, and industrial markets for biofuels are generally found in much more abundance in colder climates.

Accordingly, finding a good candidate strain in a snowfield — well, it’s quite an achievement. (Be careful when skiing in the remainder of this season — who knows which microbe you might inadvertently bury in your wake? Er, the future of energy may depend on your schussing and carves.)

The team found that as H. sp. DN1 produces the highest quantity of lipids when grown undisturbed with high light in low temperatures, it is a potential source of lipids for human nutrition. It also has an ideal lipid profile for biofuel production when stressed.

“We have isolated and characterized a new cold-tolerant lipid-producing strain of algae from the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, US,” said Dr David Nelson. “This may have implications for the commercial production of algal lipids at northern latitudes where the culture of other algal species is limited or impossible.”

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