Energy

Field Test of GMO Algae Highlights Its Vast Potential, Researchers Say

Algae can provide a source of protein, fuel cars, and replace petroleum-based plastics — and a trial of a genetically modified type shows it might not harm the environment when grown in the wild. 

University of California San Diego

From a humble green alga, California researchers envision a new world of vegetarian steak, green oil, and non-petroleum-based plastic.

“We want to make synthetic meat substances using algae protein,” said Stephen Mayfield, a biology professor and algae geneticist at the University of California San Diego. “If we could do that and make stuff that actually tasted good, now you’ve got a game-changer for the planet. Then we could stop cutting down all the rainforests and stop overfishing.”

On Thursday, Mayfield and his colleagues published test results showing genetically modified algae thriving in the wild, but not harming the environment. Detailed in the journal Algal Research, the Department of Energy-funded experiment hints at a path to eventually cultivating vast amounts of algae that might replace carbon-based products.

Science has already shown that algae can produce protein — from “green machine” juices to fish and chicken feed — as well as biofuels called alga oil and polymers, or algae-based plastic.

But to industrialize production for mass consumption, scientists need to produce higher quality algae than currently exists in the wild, said Mayfield. Rather than laboriously breeding algae, he and researchers from Sapphire Energy, a San Diego-based company, opted to genetically engineer strains of algae that they then subjected to Southern California lake water inside a lab in order to test their viability.

“We need to domesticate algae in order to make them productive enough so they can compete and make sustainable renewable products,” said Mayfield, noting that most Americans consume genetically modified corn, beef, and other foods. “We need increased efficiencies in these organisms.”

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Mayfield also helped develop surfboards made from algae plastic with a Southern California company called Arctic Foam.

It was important that the genetically modified algae didn’t harm native plants, researchers said.

"If we are going to maintain our standard of living in the future we are going to need sustainable food and energy, and ways of making those that do not disrupt the environment,” said Jonathan Shurin, a study co-author and ecologist at UC San Diego.

The market in algae products is now around $14.5 billion a year, said Mayfield. Much of that money was in the health food business. But he expected it to grow.

With the price of oil hovering around $50, algae-based biofuels aren’t competitive now. Algae-based surfboards and other plastics have yet to take off. But there’s one use for algae that’s already in high demand: It packs a lot of protein.

As billions of low-income people in countries like China and India start ascending into the middle class, they’ll likely be craving richer diets that will be hard to satisfy without new sources of protein like algae, argued Mayfield. 

“When you get more money, you start eating less grains and eating more meat,” he said. “That’s not going to work out. If 7.5 billion people on the planet were eating like Americans do today, there would be nothing left on the planet. We’d take all the cattle, all the fish. They’d be done.”

It’s not hard to grow algae, either, added Mayfield.

“You see this stuff in your swimming pool and all around. It’s sort of like weeds,” he said. “The reason they are ubiquitous is exactly the reason we need to work with them. They are survivors. We don’t need pristine farmland to grow these things. We can grow them with wastewater and ditches dug in the desert.”

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