Fossil fuel algae: key to new biofuels?

The new technologies that change our world only seem to happen overnight. Really, they’re built on constantly pushing forward scientific research. 

That’s the sort of thing University of Kentucky Professor Joe Chappell and his colleagues are up to, as they work to isolate the genes in the one organism known to have contributed, some 500 million years ago, to the formation of fossil fuels like coal and oil.

In their study of the algae Botryococcus braunii –  B. braunii in the scientific nomenclature –  Chappell and his team have nailed down the biochemical traits encoded by these genes and then taken things a step further.

They’ve genetically engineered yeast that can produce oil.

This breakthrough, outlined by the university and reported in a paper published this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, offers the tantalizing possibility, far down the road, of growing biofuel replacements for oil and coal shale deposits.

“This represents the culmination of an outstanding effort to understand a fundamental process that has direct ramifications for a real-world problem — how are we going to generate a truly renewable biofuel supply?” Chappell said.

The researchers pointed out that because the algae grows extremely slowly, it probably wouldn’t itself be a great source for biofuels. The hope – the long-term hope – is to use the “genetic blueprints” captured for the biosynthesis of high value oils, the researchers said.

Pete Danko, EarthTechling