Modern life is intimately linked to the availability of fossil fuels, which continue to meet the world's growing energy needs even though their use drives climate change, exhausts finite reserves and contributes to global political strife. Biofuels made from renewable resources could be a more sustainable alternative, particularly if sourced from organisms, such as algae, that can be farmed without using valuable arable land. Strain development and process engineering are needed to make algal biofuels practical and economically viable.
In addition to biofuels, there are countless other applications for algae biotechnology, many of which could play a significant role in meeting the world's food, water, energy, health care and material needs. However, while agricultural crops have been studied and bred for centuries, the scientific community has invested comparatively little time and few resources in the study of algae.
There's not yet a critical mass of scientists or business leaders to advance the work of deriving energy and other high-value products from algae and delivering them to market. Cal-CAB is working to change that through its scientific, educational, and industrial outreach programs. Here are some of the areas our researchers are studying:
Developing a sustainable renewable energy industry based on algae has the potential to provide energy security and millions of new green-collar jobs. That makes it Cal -CAB's highest priority. Producing biofuels from algae economically and at the necessary scale requires a fundamental understanding of all aspects of algal biology, genetics and gene expression, as well as the development of molecular tools to modify algae.
Algae have tremendous potential for other applications, including industrial enzymes, medical therapeutics, nutraceuticals, biopolymers and even animal feeds. We call this new area "green biotechnology."
Algae are a diverse set of species unified by a common theme: Sunlight, energy, and CO2 combine to produce an unrivaled array of useful products. Understanding the details of the biological processes that drive algal growth and photosynthesis is essential to tapping into this rich resource.
The natural diversity of algae and their chloroplasts is tremendous, with organisms capable of living in extremes of pH, salinity, and temperature. Identifying and understanding the genetic blueprint of important algae species will allow scientists to exploit the full potential of these natural qualities for a host of biotechnology applications.
Obtaining the DNA sequence information on algal genomes isn’t enough. We also need to understand how these genes are coordinately regulated to produce the most useful biomolecules, including biofuel precursors.
Because a single gene can code for different enzymes with widely diverse functions, we need to complement the genomic and molecular studies with protein and small molecule analysis. These approaches are called proteomic and metabolomic analysis, and together they define the biological diversity within an algal cell.
Climate change is a reality that’s happening at an alarming rate. Algae-based biofuel production could significantly impact climate change by mitigating the release of CO2 into the atmosphere (algae can sequester CO2 during photosynthetic growth).
Algae are prodigious scavengers of nutrients from water, with the potential to filter harmful nutrients from wastewater before we release it back into the environment. Utilizing nutrients from wastewater could also help reduce the cost of algae-based bioproducts by reducing the requirement for adding nutrients to algae growth facilities.
We are all stakeholders in this new green transformation. An informed transparent discussion, based on sound science and economics, will allow all parties to help plan our future. Cal-CAB provides the scientific and economic research required to make informed policy decisions, and create a forum where scientists and the public come together to discuss the opportunities and challenges ahead.
To fully understand the environmental impacts of producing algae bioproducts and to analyze the feasibility and sustainability of these production methods, life cycle assessment (LCA) needs to be undertaken and analyzed.