The Making of a Super Plant

Is a lifetime of research and an established algae company enough?
| October 03, 2011

In the late 1980s Joe Chappell failed in his attempts to capture the genetic blueprint of an ancient strain of algae known as Botryococcus braunii. In the late ‘90s, he didn’t have the funding. In the mid-2000s, Chappell still wasn’t ready to give up on his work with the ancient strain, and now, with new funding and reinvigorated efforts, he has successfully completed the genetic blueprint work he had started almost 30 years earlier as a member of a biotechnology team at Amoco Oil. Today, Chappell is a professor of agriculture at the University of Kentucky and, although he says his team isn’t the only one that has worked on the strain, he says no one else has accomplished what his team finally has.

“Back then,” Chappell says of his days working on that Amoco biotech team, “what was really evident from a lot of pieces of evidence was that there were very few organisms that could be pinpointed to be major contributors of oil and coal shale deposits around the world.” In the 1950s, he explains many of the petrochemical companies were looking at this strain of algae because of evidence that linked the strain to oil and coal shale deposits, but also because of one major aspect of the strain: oil content. “The task that we started back in the ‘80s was to try and capture the genetic blueprint as to how this very special oil is produced in this algae.”

Tim Devarenne, a UK graduate who worked in Chappell’s lab and is now a professor of biochemistry and biophysics at Texas A&M University, might provide the best way to think about Botryococcus. “It can reach up to 80 percent dry weight of oil,” he explains. “That is an obvious advantage; it can produce a lot of oil.” As Devarenne shows, not only does the strain entice researchers by the amount of oil it can produce before genetic modification even enters the picture, but as Chappell points out, it is also high-quality oil.

But, the true benefits of working with this particular ancient strain might not even be linked to the potential amount of oil it can produce when compared to others. Ask Devarenne what the strain has meant to his professional development and he can tell you of two unique projects involving the strain that his team at Texas A&M are working on. Chappell and his work have also drawn the attention of Sapphire Energy, but ultimately, the true significance of the strain might instead be linked to its potential to add value to terrestrial plants—think switchgrass injected with algae oil. The USDA has already granted funding to Chappell and his team to make that happen. So, those accomplishments Chappell says only he and his team have made? On top of besting those goals, they’ve gone one huge step further and transferred that gene to terrestrial plants such as tobacco, making a tobacco plant that produces  leaves coated with that same oil that has been around for centuries.

The Making of a Super Plant

To this point in his research, Chappell and his team have taken the genetic blueprint of Botryococcus and implanted it into tobacco, the “white rat” of green chemistry as he calls it. “We have a rough economic model that we are using as to how much of this oil a plant would have to produce on a certain amount of acres to make it viable and competitive,” he says, “and we think we’ve gotten very close to that threshold.”

To do that, the team has genetically modified the tobacco plants to produce the oils via photosynthesis, a process algae also uses, only in a different biochemical mechanism. “We’ve taken the basic knowledge of how photosynthetic machinery works in plants and basically plugged in this algal biosynthetic capacity into this organelle of the terrestrial plants.” After implanting the algal machinery into the production capabilities within the photosynthesis process, Chappell says they made the process to create a coating of oil on the surface of the leaves.

At this point in their research, the team has used chemical extraction methods to remove the oil for testing, but eventually, he says, the idea is to mimic processes utilized in the sorghum industry, allowing rollers to “squeeze out the syrup.” In their case, he says, “you would pull the leaves through the rollers and it would squeeze off the oils.”

While the team is currently using the tobacco plant for testing, Chappell says directives set forth by the USDA have pushed the work into utilizing energy crops such as switchgrass or sorghum. “That was our proposal,” he says, to have switchgrass produce the oil and after the oil is extracted, the biomass is left. “We are an added value to the current switchgrass uses,” he says, “but I would hope that our value-added commodity, this oil, is of equal—if not greater—value then the biomass.”

After finishing his Ph.D. at Kentucky, Devarenne ended up at Texas A&M, where he has taken on his own projects related to Botryococcus. “One thing that we are interested in is the enzymes responsible for making the oils that make the biofuels,” he says. His team has set out to investigate and obtain the crystal structure of those enzymes so “we can, on a very finite molecular level, find how these enzymes function and then improve on them in relation to what Joe wants to do in putting them in land plants.” Devarenne and his team have been working on this for roughly five years, he says, but it’s not the only ancient algae strain work they are doing.

In addition to the enzymatic structure diagnosis, the team is also working on a spectroscopy laser that will allow them to shine a beam on the live algal cell and determine where the lipids locate themselves within the cell. “Basically the molecules react to the laser light and you detect where specific oils are in the cell, and we try and use that information to understand how oil is biosynthesized in the cells.” As a true sign that this particular ancient strain of algae still has huge ramifications today and into the future, another use of that laser detection system shows just how important this work could be.

“In theory,” Devarenne says, “you could also use the laser to detect, if you shine the laser on an algae pond, the amount of oil in a pond, and say that the cells are ready to harvest.”

Big Time Partners

It might be easy to say that the most important aspect of Chappell’s work is directly related to how well those terrestrial plants can produce lipids, but his work with Sapphire Energy shows that for researchers and companies, there is a lot to learn from their work together. According to Chappell, after reading about his work with genetic engineering in plants and organisms that are photosynthetic, Sapphire gave him a call. “They asked if they could come for a visit, so they came for an afternoon and we chatted and the relationship evolved from there.” Now, Chappell is on the scientific advisory board at the San Diego-based company, and Sapphire is also helping to fund his research.

“Sapphire Energy’s commitment to commercializing algae oil for fuels requires technical innovations in many disparate areas,” Tim Zenk, vice president of corporate affairs says, adding that, “Scientific collaborations provide an opportunity to more efficiently carry out projects in the basic sciences, which ultimately enable the necessary technical innovations.” Zenk says the company has an extensive search process and set of criteria for working with outside researchers. “In Joe’s case, he is a luminary in the field of engineering hydrocarbon accumulation in photosynthetic organisms.”

As for Xun Wang, vice president of research and development for Sapphire, the work in Joe’s lab matches up well with the firm because a significant portion of its R&D efforts are directed towards altering carbon flux towards the hydrocarbon pool. “The pioneering work being done in the Chappell lab involves the understanding of a major metabolic pathway,” Wang says, “the isoprenoid biosynthetic pathway.” Wang adds that this basic knowledge Sapphire might gain from working with Chappell “is a necessary first step in the modification and improvement of algae as a fuel crop.”

The partnership, Joe says, “is absolutely exciting.” But it’s not the first time a big-name company and Chappell have worked together. He has worked with Amoco Oil, and maintains a working relationship with BP and ExxonMobil. And, from his experience, he says, there is a huge difference between all the companies. “Working with Sapphire,” he explained, “is a bit more enjoyable than working with the large 800-pound gorilla because you sort of have a feeling that they are going to make a lot of magic happen for them to be successful.” Amoco, however, was like a lot of big chemical companies, he explained: “There are so many layers, so you never quite know where you are in their hierarchy.”

The partnership with Sapphire isn’t all smiles though either. Chappell says it feels like you always have your finger on the pulse of the company, and Sapphire requires biweekly updates on the research. “A two-week timeline for doing science, that is real short, but it creates some excitement for the group.”

The partnership has been working out so well at times, however, that Chappell says upon one visit from Sapphire researchers and executives the company told him they wanted to hire a number of the people working in his lab. Zenk says Sapphire is always looking for the best talent. “Our R&D team looks for passionate and dedicated people with solid training in the fundamental sciences,” he says. “Joe has proven himself to be fantastic in attracting and training this type of scientist.”

For the next five years, it appears those scientist will have the chance to continue working on the oil-to-terrestrial plant work (Chappell estimates that will give him time to complete field trials and optimize the algae strain blueprint for use in switchgrass), unless, of course, they leave for the Sapphire team. As Chappell says, “Sapphire definitely has an interest in the research in my lab. They look at it as the future,” he says. Whether it is based on how to form a major algae firm-to-research laboratory relationship, create the most advanced energy crop to date, or even to witness the completion of a lifetime spent harnessing the potential of a tiny algal strain that’s been around for hundreds of millions of years, there is great interest in all of Joe’s work.

Author: Luke Geiver
Associate Editor, Algae Technology & Business
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