Pond scum gets its moment in the limelight

[USA] University of Texas plant physiologist Jerry Brand has spent the past decade lovingly tending the world’s largest collection of pond scum.

Now the quest for renewable energy has made Mr. Brand and his algae hot commodities.

As director of the university’s Culture Collection of Algae, Mr. Brand is charged with overseeing samples of 3,000 organisms.

“We have more genetic diversity than in all the zoos and botanic gardens of the world put together,” says the 67-year-old Mr. Brand.

The Culture Collection of Algae at the University of Texas has seen a spike in interest in its specimens, as inventors try to engineer oil-producing algae. Russell Gold reports from Texas.

Conducting a recent tour of the collection in the university’s three-story biology building, Mr. Brand strolled past six-foot-tall shelves filled with flasks containing algae. He paused to point out jugs bubbling with green-hued liquid as a mixture of oxygen and carbon dioxide was injected into living samples to aerate them.

The collection’s unrivaled diversity has drawn the attention of entrepreneurs who believe that buried within Mr. Brand’s assortment of single-cell organisms could be one answer to the world’s energy problems.

The basic idea is simple: Algae are little machines that convert solar energy into oily material that can be processed into biofuel. Technically, it’s possible to harvest a batch of algae, process the oils into fuel and run a combustion engine like the ones in cars and trucks. To get more oil, just grow more algae.

Mr. Brand is at the center of the quest for the perfect algae for the job.

Mr. Brand’s work, during most of his career, was mainly of interest to a narrow band of algae connoisseurs known as phycologists. Now a typical day finds him busy taking calls from venture capitalists and visiting Japanese businessmen to whom he freely offers advice on growing algae. Most commercial applications for algae so far have involved dietary supplements — algae derived omega-3 fatty acids, for instance.

Samples from the algae collection can be had for $75 apiece; the algae are packed in a screw-top glass vial and sent via overnight mail. Time was when almost all orders came from scientists exploring algae as a food supplement or from high-school kids working on science projects. More than half of orders coming in now are from people working on biofuels. Nobody knows how many different algaes there are.

One afternoon recently at the culture center, Mr. Brand stooped down to examine a batch of algae samples awaiting the mailman. One was headed to the Indian Institute of Petroleum in the foothills of the Himalayas. Another was destined for China; a third to South Dakota.

“There’s an enormous universe of algae out there and they have painstakingly collected and cataloged a pretty good chunk of that universe,” says Harrison Dillon, co-founder of Solazyme Inc. a California company developing an algae-based diesel and jet fuel. His company has ordered many strains over the years.

Mr. Brand is thrilled that algae are finally getting the attention they deserve.

Dismissing Algae

“Algae have been on the back burner of most people’s minds. It’s pond scum. It’s seaweed,” he says. “Those of us who have studied algae for decades realize there is a tremendous genetic potential.”

But even Mr. Brand didn’t recognize that potential right away. He came to algae as a Ph.D. student studying photosynthesis in the 1970s. Algae proved to be convenient test subjects.

Meanwhile, the university acquired the algae collection in 1976. The samples’ roots are traced to 1939, when scientist Ernst G. Pringsheim fled Prague ahead of the Nazis, leaving behind most of his belongings but taking his algae collection. The samples went first to Cambridge, then left England for Indiana University and ended up here in Austin.

Thanks to his longstanding work with algae, Mr. Brand was tapped as director of the collection in 1998.

The collection continues to expand; scholars bring Mr. Brand individual samples from around the world, and occasionally a scientist retires and looks for a new home for his own collection. In 2003, E. Imre Friedmann, a microbiologist interested in how life adapts to extreme environments, turned over much of the algae he acquired on trips to Antarctica and to the Gobi desert in Mongolia.

But biofuels entrepreneurs are picky. They’re searching for algae that produce oil — not all of them do — and ones that grow quickly. The ideal is algae that do both.

Mr. Brand, whose love of algae’s genetic diversity contrasts with his daily uniform of choice — gray sweater vests — believes that such focus is naive. “It is like saying I want a wheat [plant] with a high yield that grows fast,” he said on a recent afternoon, sitting in his small office where a half-eaten plum lay next to coffee mugs with algae illustrations on them. “But you also have to pay attention to the wheat’s disease resistance and whether it falls over when the wind blows.”

Oil Producer

One of the more popular algae strains among biofuel scientists is Neochloris oleoabundans, physically undistinguished green dots remarkable for their ability to produce large quantities of oil when deprived of nutrients. The collection’s samples of these algae, stored in flasks on shelves and frozen in thermoses filled with liquid nitrogen, are the descendants of samples found in the 1950s in a sand dune in Rub al Khali, Saudi Arabia’s legendary sea of sand known as the Empty Quarter.

The discovery is credited to Srisumon Chantanachat, a Bangkok-born botanist whose University of Texas Ph.D. dissertation on algae from arid soils can now be found on the shelves at King Saud University library in Riyadh.

But Mr. Brand has his own favorites. Most notably, there’s dasycladales. Opening an industrial refrigerator, the plant scientist pulled out a glass dish filled with distilled water spiked with nutrients.

Sample From Germany

Mr. Brand secured the sample from the Max Planck Institute in Germany, where 50 years ago groundbreaking work was done on these algae’s forefathers, deciphering how genetic information is spread within a cell. Mr. Brand traveled to Germany himself to collect the sample, cradling it in his lap on the long return flight to Austin.

Mr. Brand picked up the Pyrex dish to show off his pets to a visitor. Floating in the water was a nickel-size, fern-like green asterisk. “You can see how beautiful these little guys are,” he said.

Despite his newfound popularity with the business world, Mr. Brand remains a scientist impatient that there still are not enough “basic biology experiments” being done on algae to understand them better. Doing his part to add to the world’s store of algae arcana, he’s considering assigning an undergraduate to study the algae that grows in the turtle pond behind his building.


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