During World War II German scientists discovered that some strains of algae, when starved of nutrients, quickly build up oil in their cells. The war ended, and the discovery lay dormant until people began to search in earnest for greener alternatives to fossil fuels.
In the early 2000s, algal fuel production enjoyed a tremendous vogue, as scientists and venture capitalists were seduced by the notion of converting "pond scum" to oil. But a recent wave of bankruptcies has made it clear that algae biofuel companies got ahead of the science.
To address this shortfall, the Department of Energy has funded a three-university collaboration led by Washington University in St. Louis to approach the problem of algal fuels systematically.
The principal investigator on the grant is Himadri Pakrasi, PhD, the George William and Irene Koechig Freiberg Professor of Biology in Arts & Sciences, professor of energy in the School of Engineering & Applied Science, and director of the International Center for Advanced Renewable Energy and Sustainability (I-CARES).
In a two-step project, groups at Washington University, Purdue University and Pennsylvania State University will first attempt a comprehensive understanding of the metabolic machinery of selected cyanobacterial strains and then implement that understanding by assembling a novel bacterium with the metabolic machinery needed to produce fuel molecules.
Far from outrunning the science, the team will be bringing to bear the most sophisticated approaches contemporary biology now has to offer: systems biology and synthetic biology.
Systems biology is the discipline that takes into account the full complexity of a cell's metabolic machinery before abstracting a simpler model consisting of the essential metabolic pathways. This route to simplicity through complexity made possible by automated high-throughput lab equipment and powerful computers stands to some extent in oppositi
|Contact: Diana Lutz|
Washington University in St. Louis