A Colorado School of Mines professor is part of a team that has been awarded $8 million over five years by the U.S Department of Energy to engineer a particular strain of alga to produce renewable biofuel.
Nanette Boyle, assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering, will receive $616,000 over the next five years for her part in the project, which is to create a genome-scale metabolic model of the algae—Chromochloris zofingiensis—and use it to predict how carbon is directed through its metabolism and what genetic changes will lead to increased production of lipids, which can then be extracted and converted into biodiesel.
“I will also be performing isotope-assisted metabolic flux analysis to quantify carbon fluxes in the cell for both growth on glucose and carbon dioxide,” Boyle said. “This will validate or help to iteratively improve the predictions made using the metabolic model and identify any bottlenecks or undesired side products that can then be targeted using genetic engineering techniques.”
There are two main challenges in developing high-yielding algae strains, Boyle said. “First, our understanding of genetic regulation and cellular physiology lags behind other model organisms like E. coli and yeast,” Boyle said. “Second, we don’t have sophisticated genetic tools to introduce the desired changes.”
In addition to Boyle’s work, the team will collect data on a large scale to gain insight into genetic elements that control metabolic shifts responsible for lipid accumulation. This information will then be used to develop synthetic biology tools to enable fast and efficient engineering of the algae’s cells.
The project, “Systems analysis and engineering of biofuel production in Chromochloris zofingiensis, an emerging model green alga,” is led by Krishna Niyogi of the University of California, Berkeley. Investigators include Crysten Blaby, Brookhaven National Laboratory; Mary Lipton, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory; Sabeeha Merchant, UCLA; and Trent Northen, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
The grant is administered by the Genomic Science Program in the Energy Department’s Office of Biological and Environmental Research.
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