Microalgae: renewable biofuel source with no need for fresh water. Just give them our wastewater.

Last week, I presented illustrations for yeast and a microalgal species of Chlamydomonas. Today I will expound on part of this. Ongoing research is working to identify ways to circumvent the need for fresh water, a precious commodity, and costly fertilizer to cultivate microalgae for biofuel production. These microorganisms are a rich source of oils that can be integrated into our national fuel infrastructure. However, growing the amount of microalgae necessary to decrease our need for petroleum based fuel relies on a precious and ever deminishing resource, fresh water. Also needed are nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous, usually in the form of fertilizer.

Microalgae are adaptable to environmental changes. Recent research shows several microalgal species that can be cultivated with no need for freshwater. Instead, these species, Chlamydomonas globosaChlorella minutissima and Scenedesmus bijuga, are grown in something we have plenty of; wastewater.

illustrated bacteria, microbiology, microalgae
Illustration of Chlamydomonas globosa
illustrated bacteria, microbiology, microalgae
Illustration of Scenedesmus bijuga
illustrated bacteria, microbiology, microalgae
Illustration of Chlorella minutissima

These microalgae are able to generate energy and grow with no input of fresh, potable water or fertilizers. The ‘nutrients’ needed are all available within the wastewater. By wastewater I am referring to myriad kinds of used water predominantly from industry like the production of carpets or other products and from livestock litter. Usually, microalgae can be viewed similar to plants with respect to their carbon utilization. Algae can breathe in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and convert it into carbohydrates and fatty acids (oils), thus releasing oxygen back into the atmosphere. They have been doing this for over 3.5 billion years and are the primary reason other life, including humans, are alive today. However, microalgae can also use different metabolic strategies to incorporate carbon. Also, these organisms can utilize both carbon dioxide and organic carbon compounds simultaneously (called mixotrophy).

This research is only the beginning. As these investigations progress, many other organisms can be identified that can lower our dependence on fossil fuels.

Related articles

Long time, no post: illustrations and ramblings

cell on cell 1


Sorry it has been so long since my last post. Lots of ‘fun’ at Disney World and a big pickup in stuff to do at work. From what I have been working on, I am seeing lots of great things coming out of the Department of Energy’s Bioenergy Research Centers (BRCs). I wasn’t aware the level of pioneering work in synthetic biology coming down the pipeline and ready for industry partners. Be on the lookout for upcoming posts about this topic and others.

Germs, for lack of a better word, are good. Germs are right. Germs work. Germs clarify, cut through, and capture, the essence of the evolutionary spirit.

To paraphrase a great movie classic, Wall Street. 

I want to change focus a bit, from bacteria benefiting mankind by cleaning up our messes and providing electricity, to another great benefit of bacteria; their pliability. It is very easy to manipulate the genetics of bacteria (see Biohacking). This owes to their genome structure and lack of miles of “junk” DNA. This means scientists can insert genes from one bacterium into a more well-known bacterium, like E. coli, to perform a novel function and, in a way, reverse millions of years of evolution. For example, in 2011, Jay Keasling and his team at the Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) modified E. coli to degrade switchgrass biomass into sugars. Not only that, the E. coli fermented the sugars into gasoline, diesel, or jet fuel without enzyme additives. Think about it; E. coli, a bacterium that colonizes the digestive tracts of mammals, is able to breakdown plant material and directly convert it into fuel. That is amazing. I’m working on an illustration to depict this, so check back. 


Carbon capture: an animated GIF of the RuBisCO reaction of the Calvin Cycle

carbon fixation, RuBisCO, carbon capture, calvin cycle
RuBisCO (cyan color) converting ribulose 1,5-bisphosphate and carbon dioxide into two molecules of 3-phosphoglycerate

“Write what you know about” – Mark Twain

Good advice from a great communicator. From now on, the majority of posts will relate in some way to bacteria, especially microbial genomics. Most of the remainder of posts will be related to science communication and education.

Why bother spreading the love for the little creatures? I believe this quote from microbialgenomics.energy.gov sums it up:

By some estimates, microbes make up about 60% of the earth’s biomass, yet less than 1% of microbial species have been identified. Because most do not cause disease in humans, animals, or plants and are difficult to culture, they have received little attention. Identifying and harnessing their unique capabilities will offer us new solutions to longstanding challenges in environmental and waste cleanup, energy production and use, medicine, industrial processes, agriculture, and other areas. Scientists also are starting to appreciate the role played by microbes in global climate processes, and we can expect insights about both the biological underpinnings of climate change and the contributions of microbes to earth’s biosphere. Their capabilities soon will be added to the list of traditional commercial uses for microbes in the brewing, baking, dairy, and other industries.

There is so much we don’t know about microbes. However, we are beginning to understand their enormous adaptability. Whether it is 30,000 feet above the ground or two miles beneath it, bacteria can inevitably survive. I will now focus on getting the word out about the little guys who can’t speak for themselves.

Microbes can be used in soil cleanup
Microbes can be used in soil cleanup (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

‘Zoomable’ map of poplar proteins offers new view of bioenergy crop

‘Zoomable’ map of poplar proteins offers new view of bioenergy crop.

Put #government labs to work on #climatechange – The Washington Post

I want to start by saying I am part of the national labs system. I’m at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and work as a science writer for a small group that publishes for the Office of Biological and Environmental Research within DOE. That being said, I’m still a concerned citizen as well. I want my daughter to experience this planet as I have. This opinion article in the Washington Post by Naomi Oreskes, a professor of history and science studies at the University of California at San Diego, is brilliant and articulate. Straight at the heart of what the Executive Branch can do without going through the cluster f#ck that is Congress. However, as always, it comes down to money and reapportioning funding for the suggested changes in this article would essentially have to go through Congress. Here are the suggestions in the article:

●Alternative energy. The climate problem is fundamentally an energy problem. While strides have been made — by both industry and government — in developing alternative energy sources, renewables still provide only a sliver of the U.S. energy profile. The scale of renewable energy research and development needs to be radically increased.

●Carbon capture and storage. Shale gas development in the United States and Canada is generating jobs and revenue and could substantially decrease our reliance on petroleum. But shale gas is still gas — methane: a fossil fuel that when burned produces carbon dioxide. Large-scale development may exacerbate the climate problem if inexpensive gas undercuts the market for renewables. If, however, shale gas development could be coupled with carbon capture and storage, trapping the carbon dioxide produced, then this resource might be usable without worsening climate change.

●Energy storage. Wind and solar are real sources of energy, but only when the wind blows or the sun shines. Yet many wind and solar projects produce excess capacity that could be used later or elsewhere if it could be stored. Ideas for renewable-energy storage need to be developed and expanded.

●Social obstacles to energy efficiency. Numerous studies show that Americans could cut energy use by 30 percent or more through efficiency measures and save money at the same time. Yet most of us don’t. This is a bit of a mystery for economists; social science research in the laboratory system should be mobilized to figure out why we don’t save energy and money even when we could.

●Climate engineering. Deliberate alteration of the climate to compensate for inadvertent modification is a technically and ethically troubling concept, but it may be one of the only available means to slow climate warming and buy time while other solutions are implemented. Physical scientists should expand their work in this area, and social scientists and humanists should be enlisted to address the ethical dimensions and governance issues.

Curiosity-driven science has not yet provided the solutions to global warming, and universities are not well situated to address a single, overarching problem. Moreover, the president does not have authority over our nation’s universities. But he does have authority over our national laboratory system. The labs have been mobilized before; the time has come to mobilize them again.


The last part (in bold) is a great remark and one I completely agree with. These suggestions should be sent to the White House, perhaps through the petitions website. Are you with me?

Put government labs to work on climate change – The Washington Post.