Characterization of desert microalgae species

The rise in energy demand and the exhaustion of new sources of fossil fuels has caused an increase  in demand and cost of fossil fuel products. In 2011, annual world energy consumption grew at 2.5% with China leading the growth at 71% of new global consumption(Petroleum, 2012). In addition, future energy uncertainty and speculation has an effect in national security, climate change, and human health. The need for new energy sources is fueling the search for renewable and sustainable alternatives to fossil based fuel resources(Hunt, Belcher, & Timoshkina, 2012). Recent international concern regarding global warming from anthropogenic CO2 levels in the atmosphere is also driving the search for sustainable and renewable energy sources(Chisti, 2007; Ghasemi et al., 2012; Mata, Martins, & Caetano, 2010). The rapid growth of energy consumption and the recent high price of oil, along with concern from anthropogenic CO2, has made the search for a sustainable, renewable source of energy an economic and national security priority(DOE, 2010).

Biological derived fuels, such as biodiesel and bioethanol, are attractive alternatives to fossil based fuels. Currently, biodiesel and bioethanol are produced from diverse land crops, used fry oil, and waste animal fats(Khan, Rashmi, Hussain, Prasad, & Banerjee, 2009; Spolaore, Joannis-Cassan, Duran, & Isambert, 2006). These sources of alternative fuels are limited as they encroach on fertile land, fresh water sources, replace food crops, have long gestation periods, and have a low yield per hectare leading to higher land use(Mata et al., 2010).

By contrast, microalgae offer a viable alternative for biomass production without impinging on food sources and arable land(Mutanda et al., 2011; S. Ratha & R. Prasanna, 2012). Microalgae growth systems can be positioned in non-arable land or cultivated in high saline conditions or wastewater thus making use of non-arable land and reducing fresh water use for biomass production. They are also capable of producing a wide range of carbon-based nutritionals, pharmaceuticals, and valuable chemical feedstocks(Brennan & Owende, 2010; Chisti, 2007; Larkum, Ross, Kruse, & Hankamer, 2012). This is an important concern as the needs for fuel and food will increase dramatically as the world population is estimated to reach 9 billion people by 2050(Affairs, 2004). Microalgae has several key features that make it a strong candidate for continued research and development(DOE, 2010; S. Ratha & R. Prasanna, 2012). These features are:

•Higher biomass yield per cultivated acre
•Minimize competition with arable land and nutrients
•Utilize waste water and saline water
•Recycle CO2 from flue emissions
•Compatible with current fuels and co-product biorefinery infrastructure
•Use as dietary supplement for humans and livestock
•Produce high value metabolites

Co-production models that use the secondary metabolites, protein fraction, and sugar fractions increase the commercial value of microalgae industries(Mata et al., 2010; Spolaore et al., 2006). In addition, microalgae biomass is to be used as feedstock for novel biomass-to-liquid fuel conversion technologies currently under development in other laboratories at MIST.

The laboratory aims to:

1. Develop a model system to cultivate and sustain UAE native algal isolates.
Environmental microbial samples will be (1) cell sorted and stored for identification and genomic sequencing and (2) cultivated in micro-photobioreactors under defined growth conditions to establish multimember communities. High throughput micro-bioreactors capable of mimicking the local environment from where the samples are extracted will be designed and built. Samples of local soils will be analyzed for nutrient content and chemical composition. These findings will be used to prepare defined medial for cell growth. Cultured environmental isolates and type strains will undergo analysis using metagenomics and computational systems biology to identify biologically active secondary metabolite pathways. Algal isolates will be propagated and archived for future experimental work.

2. Develop mathematical models for optimization of growth and carbon metabolite composition for desired products.
Experimental-based model structure and parameters calibration will be conducted in order to produce a mathematical model capable of accurately describing the algae process. The model therefore will be used to optimize and design experiment towards maximum starch or lipid production in the algal isolates. Variables affecting metabolic flux driving metabolisms towards desired metabolic products will be targeted. This model will allow for the description of the mechanisms by which environmental conditions (such as pH, concentrations, temperature, light intensity) affect algal metabolism.

3. Isolate and characterize metabolites excreted by novel algal isolates and use high throughput sequencing to investigate metabolic potential of algal isolates.
Metabolites from microbial isolates will be extracted and characterized using liquid chromatography/mass spectroscopy (LC/MS) and gas chromatography/mass spectroscopy (GC/MS) or other appropriate techniques to identify compounds excreted by microbial isolates. Isolated algal from both cell sorting and cultivation efforts will undergo genome sequencing using Illumina sequencing technology. The genomic information will allow for a database of members of the microbial community. Bioinformatics tools will be used to mine known algal genomes for molecular pathways involved in production of metabolites identified in samples. This database will allow for identification of potential metabolic pathways involved in substrate degradation, small molecule utilization, and environmental interactions.

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Brennan, L., & Owende, P. (2010). Biofuels from microalgae—A review of technologies for production, processing, and extractions of biofuels and co-products. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, 14(2), 557-577. doi: 10.1016/j.rser.2009.10.009