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Mighty algae could lead to biofuels breakthrough

OSU researcher Gerald Schoenknecht and his team recently completed genome sequencing for an algae that thrives inside active volcanoes. The researchers hope to use their findings to help make tough algae for use in manufacturing biofuels.
by Adam Wilmoth Modified: May 9, 2013 at 10:08 pm •  Published: May 10, 2013

Some of the world's toughest and tiniest organisms could hold secrets that would make processing biofuels more effective.

Gerald Schoenknecht, an Oklahoma State University associate botany professor, is part of a team that recently completed a genetic sequencing of the Galdieria sulphuraria, a particularly hearty red algae that has been found inside active volcanoes.

“The main driving force was really to understand how this organism can survive in an environment where almost every other organism simply dies in a surprisingly short time,” Schoenknecht said.

Schoenknecht's research found some surprising results: The enzymes that make the algae so tough were “stolen” from bacteria enzymes, something that is not supposed to be possible.

“That was so unexpected that when we first saw it, we thought something had gone wrong,” Schoenknecht said. “The first thing we did was ask our Ph.D. students what they did wrong. But we ran a lot of controls, and our findings hold water.”

Schoenknecht's team published the findings in Science magazine.

“It obviously can live in these volcanic areas because it somehow acquired genes, the building structure for proteins, from bacteria,” Schoenknecht said. “Bacteria swap genes across species. This is well established. This is why we have problems with antibiotic resistant bacteria in hospitals.”

The findings could help strengthen biofuels research by giving scientists access to the tough properties in the red algae.

Researchers throughout the country are trying to develop processes to better break down the thick, tough walls in corn stalks, switch grass and other nonfood biofuel sources.

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by Adam Wilmoth
Energy Editor
Adam Wilmoth returned to The Oklahoman as energy editor in 2012 after working for four years in public relations. He previously spent seven years as a business reporter at The Oklahoman, including five years covering the state's energy sector....
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