"The knowledge base for this organism is huge," Pakrasi says. "For example, three years ago, we published a paper that included information not just from our lab but also from 17 other labs that collectively describes the behavior of Synechocystis at the level of gene expression under 151 environmental conditions."
"In many ways Synechocystis is a run-of-the-mill cyanobacterial strain," Pakrasi says, "just one we know a lot about. The systems biology work we are doing with other strains will allow us to identify useful metabolic modules that Synechocystis does not have, and add them to Synechocystis as needed to create a family of bugs tailored to produce a range of fuels or fuel precursors."
One of the reasons Synechocystis is such a good lab rat is that, even though it is called a blue-green alga, it is really a bacterium. As is true of many other bacteria, its DNA can easily integrate foreign DNA. The initial wave of enthusiasm for algal fuels, on the other hand, was based on micro-algae, which are essentially single-celled plants. The genomes of most of them are not as easy to manipulate. They're also much bigger, more elaborate and less understood.
"People all started with micro-algae because they were already making a ton of oil," Pakrasi says."But guess what? So little is known about their biology that you cannot do anything with them beyond what they're already doing by themselves. You don't have the option to go in there and modify the genome or make changes in the cellular composition that will allow you to achieve your goal in a more facile way."
"People used to say, 'Well, cyanos don't make oil.' That may be true, but we can engineer them so that they make oil, and that is what
|Contact: Diana Lutz|
Washington University in St. Louis