Green Revolution 2.0: Advancing from lab to industrial algae production

Computer Science and Engineering Professor at the University of California San Diego (UCSD) Vineet Bafna was on the roster of experts who spoke at Green Revolution 2.0. The symposium, March 12-13 in the Qualcomm Institute, was organized by the California Center for Algal Biology and the Center for Food and Fuel for the 21st Century (FF21). Bioinformatics expert Bafna addressed “Ecology of Open Algae Ponds for the Production of Biofuels,” noting that algae are great feedstocks for biofuels and other products, but the challenge is to get yield at low cost.

Green Revolution 2.0 refers to the observation that the first green revolution, beginning in the 1940s, focused agricultural scientists on saving more than a billion people worldwide from starvation by developing high yielding varieties of crops, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, improved irrigation practices and better land management. Now scientists are confronted with how to feed and provide fuel for countries such as India, Brazil, Mexico and China, which are not only projected to dramatically expand their populations in the decades ahead, but have rapidly developing economies that will require an exponential increase in fuel and food. What the world needs to satisfy those demands, say many scientists, is a second Green Revolution.

In principle, microalgae may produce between 10 and 100 times more oil per acre than traditional crops, but that has not been achieved in an industrial setting. “There is a general understanding in ecology that diversity is good for productivity, and that precept might be useful for industrial production,” said Bafna. “But we don’t know that these ecological ideas can work in an industrial setting.”

To test his hypothesis, Bafna’s team did a year-long experiment in which they monitored the prokaryotic and eukaryotic composition of an algae pond using genome sequencing to assess the taxonomic composition and diversity in the pond. In addition to genomic sampling, they used phenotyping to gauge various measures of pond health.

“We managed to optimize productivity of biomass over the course of a year,” says Bafna. “Our results strongly suggest that diversity is important for pond productivity, and even in a managed setting, open ponds behave like natural ecosystems.”

The team’s results, as Bafna explained to the FF21 annual conference, indicate that algal diversity promotes production, and that understanding the ecology of open algae ponds for the production of biofuels is critical to managing their output of biomass energy and other products. The findings hold out hope that microalgae could one day fulfill its theoretical range of producing from 10 to 100 times more oil per acre than traditional crops.

The study was funded by NSF and carried out in a partnership with FF21 director Stephen Mayfield and Biological Sciences professor Jonathan Shurin (both from UC San Diego). Bafna also acknowledged collaborators at Sapphire Energy, Life Technologies and SDSU.


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