A lot of the vegetable oil in our diet comes from palm oil plantations in South-East Asia for which rainforests have been cleared. PhD candidate Lenny de Jaeger was looking for an alga that could produce this oil in a more sustainable fashion. He developed a promising
De Jaeger was researching the micro-alga Scenedesmus obliquus. ‘It produces sugars with the help of sunlight and under certain conditions it then converts the sugars into starch and triacylglycerol.’ This TAG is an excellent raw material for producing vegetable oil for consumption. Using UV radiation, De Jaeger developed a mutant of the micro-alga that does not produce starch. That increased the TAG share from 45 to 57 per cent. What is more, fatty acid production was twice as efficient as in the ordinary alga. That is a breakthrough in oil production using algae, says the PhD candidate.
The mutant of S. obliquus may well be able to produce enough oil to rival the oil palm. To test that, a new PhD candidate is now conducting trials in AlgaePARC, Wageningen UR’s test facility for algae research.
The only disadvantage of S. obliquus is that it lives in freshwater. Saltwater algae would be preferred for large-scale production because salt water is available in almost unlimited quantities. That is why De Jaeger is also studying Neochloris oleoabundans. As the name suggests, it also produces oil. However, De Jaeger was mainly interested in the amino acids in N. oleoabundans that let it survive in salt water. After mapping the alga's genes, he now has his sights on a few genes that cause this salt tolerance. De Jaeger thinks that you could insert these genes in other algae, making them tolerant to salt too.
With this suggestion, however, he touches on a dilemma in algae research. ‘Changing the fatty acid composition is very tricky without genetic modification.’ But a GMO alga is a problem if you want to use the alga for food products. That is why he used UV to modify S. obliquus, even though this is a much less precise method for disabling genes.
Even so, De Jaeger is optimistic about the future for genetic modification, as his proposition that ‘GMO-derived food products will eventually save more lives than GMO-derived drugs’ shows.
Lenny de Jaeger will obtain his doctorate on 9 October. His supervisors are Gerrit Eggink, professor of Industrial Biotechnology, and René Wijffels, professor of Bioprocess Technology