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.
The process relies on mostly man-made organisms and enzymes to break down the sturdy, protein-rich plant parts into gasoline, diesel and other fuels.
What is the impact?
Schoenknecht and others hope to take the knowledge from the volcanic algae and apply some of those cell properties to the organisms used with biofuels.
“Our research could be useful in having an organism that can tolerate high heat or metal contamination,” Schoenknecht said. “The idea is that if we understand how this red algae can deal with hostile environmental conditions, it may enable us by genetic modification to toughen biofuels-producing algae, to introduce this ability into biofuels algae.”
Ray Hunke, director of the Biobased Products and Energy Center at OSU, leads biofuels research concentrating on switch grass and other possible feedstock. He said more research is needed in all aspects of the biofuels process.
“We take a holistic approach at Oklahoma State,” Hunke said. “We have a team of researchers who are working together and evaluating how we can utilize our resources via the various conversion process.
“It's a feedback mechanism. Everyone is talking to each other to achieve the best possible scenario, the most efficient process available, through our research,” Hunke said.