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RELEVANCE

Global fossil fuels supplies dwindling


SUSTAINABILITY

Fast-growing, easily utilised marine algae which fix carbon dioxide


BIOTECHNOLOGY

Oil production from cultivated micro-organisms


BIOFUEL

Energy readily convertible from marine plants

Finding genes that produce oil in microalgae

Carole Shellcock, a PhD student at Scottish Association for Marine Science is investigating the genes that code for neutral lipids, triacylglycerides.




Micro-algae are a vast group of highly diverse organisms. Individual strains can be cultivated under a range of environmental conditions from freshwater to high salt. This means they can be grown in difficult conditions where conventional agriculture would be unsuccessful. Many micro-algae are capable of accumulating proportionally high levels of neutral lipids i.e triacylglycerides (TAGs). These are important in the application of the algal oils as a biofuel source.

In my PhD project I am studying the genes that code for these neutral oils using a “model” diatom species, Phaeodactylum tricornutum. I have cultivated the micro-algae in a mass culture system and subjected them to different environmental conditions. Samples removed at different time points during the cultivation have been analysed for lipid accumulation and processed to obtain RNA. The experiments carried out so far have shown that the storage of oil occurs once culture growth has stopped. The extracted RNA is currently being used to develop molecular tools and methods to enable me to study the expression of genes involved in the oil production and storage. Subsequently, mechanisms found in the P. tricornutum, can be investigated in other diatoms and micro-algal species. This will make it possible to develop gene probes to select micro-algal strains with the potential to produce oil, which will assist in selection of strains for biofuel production.

Photo:  algae stained with fluorescent Nile Red which gives the yellow colour to the neutral lipid (TAGs) bodies.

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