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Cold water algae for biofuels – a new source of alternative energy


Leader Peter Wilson, University of Tsukuba
Researcher Tony Haymet, University of California San Diego
Term June 2013 - Dec 2014
Research Outline

 World-class skills are available at UCSD and the University of Tsukuba (UT) to determine the value of further research into the use of cold water algae as a source of biofuels for the planet. Biofuels research is currently not keeping pace with expected future energy production requirements. Attention has turned to the promising alternative of single-celled algae which grow quickly, need few added nutrients, can be grown on a very large scale and take CO2 from the air as part of their growth process. Compared with crops normally used to produce oil such as soybeans or palm, algae can produce 30 times the amount of oil per acre. Society needs to immediately begin the development of molecular and genetic tools that will allow algae to become an economically viable biofuel source.
 The San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology (and in particular the Mayfield group at the UCSD) and the University of Tsukuba (the Watanabe group in the School of Life and Environmental Sciences) are arguably the world leaders in the science surrounding microalgae and engineering such algae for industrial use. They each have a long history of successful study of microalgae and biomass production, but have different and complimentary foci in their research. Their respective research activities are currently outside-funded by a variety of agencies (MEXT, NSF and DOE) but neither group is currently looking at cold water algae in any detail. Recent algal blooms at high latitudes have suggested that climate change is causing more favorable conditions for large scale growth of algae in clean, cold waters.
 Both groups however currently have monocultures of various polar algae species and it is only through research cooperation, such as an intensive workshop, where rapid progress will be made. The Wilson/Watanabe group at UT is currently analyzing the ice binding properties of various algae and diatoms and liaising with several overseas agencies (such as the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany and the Ben Group at the University of Ottawa). In order for Japan and the USA to be together at the forefront of biofuels science and production it is essential to work more closely and quickly determine the best species and conditions for large scale growth.


Leader Peter Wilson, University of Tsukuba
Researcher Tony Haymet, University of California San Diego
Term June 2013 - Dec 2014
Achievements Outline

Note that in January 2014 Wilson moved from the University of Tsukuba to the University of Tasmania in Australia.

Much of the period to date has been spent determining who, around the world, has stocks and cultures of cold water microalgae which might be used to assay for antifreeze and ice binding proteins before we look at lipid content and biofuels possibilities. These algae must withstand multiple freeze-thaw cycles to be able to be used as a source of biofuels in cold surface waters at high latitudes.

1. The Alfred Wegener Institute in Bremerhaven, Germany studies antifreeze and salt stress tolerant proteins from sea ice diatoms. They note that “some polar diatoms (e.g. Fragilariopsis species) are able to grow and to divide below freezing temperature and above average sea water salinity. Their work includes a patent application in which there are three nucleic acid sequences coding for salt and cold stress and their respectively proteins. Dr M. Bayer-Giraldi, who works on this at AWI, and Wilson are collaborators on this and other projects and have recently written a book chapter together.

2. CSIRO houses the Australian National Algae Culture Collection (ANACC) at the Marine and Atmospheric Research laboratories located in Hobart, Tasmania. ANACC maintains over 950 strains, and is a major culture collection in the Australasian region. It is housed in a world-class algal culture facility, the collection is a research resource for investigations into the growth and physiology, taxonomy, biochemistry and molecular genetics of microalgae. It is managed by Dr Susan Blackburn and both Wilson and Haymet have been in contact with Susan recently about collaborating and using the cultures.

3. The University of Tasmania is studying the microbial communities inhabiting sea ice ecosystems which currently contribute 10–50% of the annual primary production of polar seas. Brine algae collected from McMurdo Sound (Antarctica) sea ice has been incubated in situ under various carbonate chemistry conditions. They find that projected increases in seawater pCO2, will not adversely impact brine algal communities. Wilson now works at the same institution as Andrew McMinn, the PI on this work.

Haymet, from UCSD Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and Wilson continue to collaborate closely on this project and meet every few months to discuss.
Yoshihiro Shiraiwa from the University of Tsukuba will take over the running of the project from Wilson.

Activity Contents

1.Book chapter in press; Bayer-Giraldi, M., Jin, E. S. and P. W. Wilson. 2014. Characterization of ice binding proteins from sea ice algae. In Methods in Molecular Biology (Humana Press), D. K. Hincha, and Ellen Zuther Editors. 17 pp,

2.Haymet and Wilson will attend the 2nd Ice Binding protein conference in Sapporo in august 2014 and Wilson will present a paper there (title to be determined). Bayer-Giraldi will also present at that conference.

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