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J. Craig Venter Institute-led team awarded $10.7M by DOE to boost lipid production in diatoms for next-gen biofuels and bioproducts

Scientists led by the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI), a not-for-profit genomic research organization, were recently awarded a 5-year, $10.7-million grant by the United States Department of Energy, Office of Science, Biological and Environmental Research (BER), BER Genomic Science Program to optimize metabolic networks in model photosynthetic microalgae, called diatoms. The aim of this work is to substantially increase oil (lipid) production, enabling next-generation biofuels and bioproducts.

Building on prior synthetic biology and diatom research, methodologies will be developed and optimized for introducing and transplanting new biological functions into diatoms—a globally abundant class of algae. Initial modeling exercises will guide targeted genetic manipulations, associated systems biology experiments, and result in iterative network and genome-scale cellular modeling.

Optimization of approaches for genome-scale engineering and implementation of reprogrammed biological function, such as replacement of storage carbohydrates with storage lipids, will occur in parallel.

Fusing novel, large-scale genome manipulation with metabolic modeling through design-build-test cycles, and detailed physiological characterization represents an exciting leap forward in tailoring organisms for maximum productivity of biofuels and other high value products. We hope to overcome currently limiting efficiency bottlenecks to promote production of high-value, fuel-related metabolites.

—project principal investigator, Andrew Allen, Ph.D.

Based on the photosynthetic efficiency and growth potential of microalgae, it is estimated that annual oil production of greater than 30,000 liters, or about 200 barrels of microalgal oil per hectare of land may be achievable in mass culture of oil-rich algae. This is 100-fold greater than that of soybeans, a major feedstock currently used for biodiesel in the US. Genome-scale engineering provides a method for substantially raising this already promising production ceiling.

Project team members also include Chris Dupont, Ph.D., J. Craig Venter Institute; Graham Peers, Ph.D., and Wen Zhou, Ph.D., Colorado State University; Jamey D. Young, Ph.D., Vanderbilt University; and Karsten Zengler, Ph.D., and Bernhard Ø Palsson, Ph.D., University of California, San Diego.

This award was made in response to solicitation DE-FOA-0001650, Biosystems Design to Enable Next-Generation Biofuels and Bioproducts.


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