Genetically Engineered Algae Could Show Up in Fuels, Foods, and Pharmaceuticals

Researchers at UC San Diego and Sapphire Energy say they've genetically engineered an algae that can be cultivated with new traits that could become a source of fuel, and increased food supplies. Their work was published in the Algal Research.

The modified algae could soon show up in food, fuel, and pharmaceuticals. 

Funded by the Department of Energy, researchers were able to genetically engineer algae that could be cultivated outdoors with a variety of traits - and more importantly - without impacting the native algae in the area. 

Stephen Mayfield, a professor of biology and an algae geneticist at UC San Diego told that agricultural experts have been doing similar work for decades. 

"Just as agricultural experts for decades have used targeted genetic engineering to produce robust food crops that provide human food security, this study is the first step to demonstrate that we can do the same with genetically engineered algae."

Genetically engineered strains of Acutodesmus dimophus (the family of algae researchers were working on) were cultured in parallel with non-engineered variants of the same species. 

Algaes have become an interesting subject for researchers and scientists. Using genetic engineering, scientists can develop algaes that can grow faster, ward off deadly bacteria, or even produce more oil which can be turned into biofuels or plastics. 

They can even use algae to be nutrious, which can be eaten by livestock or people (Soylent Green anyone?). 

“Every single organism that we use today to produce the food, feed and fiber that we use is genetically modified,” Mayfield said. “This is true for both plants and animals. We did that through the process of domestication, in which we selected the mutations — genetic modifications — that produced the traits we wanted. That might have been larger ears of corns, or bigger soybean seeds, or even cows that produced milk longer.”

Splicing genes and genetically engineering algae may sound like the first ten minutes of the latest zombie flick, but, Mayfield says that the risks are worth it. 

“Life is risky, and algae are no different than other organisms,” Mayfield said. “But if we make the right changes, and then carefully measure their properties, we can easily manage the risk and develop the strain we need.”

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