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Algal biodiesel – challenging cell walls

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Much current research is focussed on algal-based biodiesel due to the need to replace fossil fuels in the long term. However, in order to make biodiesel production from microalgae a commercial reality, several technical and economical hurdles have to be overcome. So far, researchers are optimising algal biomass production and the triacylglycerol (TAG) content of algae, which is the major feedstock for biodiesel production. TAG content of algae is increased either by varying algal growth conditions or by genetically engineering their metabolic pathways. However, if the cells do not secrete the TAGs into the surrounding medium, algal cell walls are the final barrier that has to be overcome for extracting TAGs. Solvent extraction is commonly used for recovering TAGs from algal cells which adds considerably to the costs and environmental burden of biofuel production.

The goal of my research is optimising algal biomass and TAG production as well as investigating alternative options for recovering biofuel molecules from algae. In order to decide on an extraction method, I have used transmission electron microscopy (TEM) to determine the localisation of lipid bodies in the cell. Furthermore, I have developed a high-throughput assay that can be used to determine whether the cell wall of a given species is attacked by enzymatic treatment. Using this assay, we have found several candidate enzymes that attack the cell walls of different algae.

This talk is part of the Plant Sciences Research Seminars series.

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