Snowfield algae strain unveiled at ABS preconference workshop

| October 25, 2011

David Nelson, a graduate student at the University of Minnesota, was not in the building during the 2011 Algae Biomass Summit’s preconference workshop, but the participants in there still learned of Nelson’s algae discovery on the snowy slopes of Breckenridge, Colo. Peter Lefebrve, professor of plant biology at UM, gave a presentation to more than 100 people at the preconference event, detailing Nelson’s algae find, and providing a Midwestern and Northern climate perspective on algae. During a trip to Colorado, Lefebrve explained to the crowd, Nelson got anxious in his room and headed out for a hike up to 14,000 feet. Nelson not only made the entire hike, but he returned with a new strain of chlamydamonas that Lefebrve said has a “lifestyle that is fascinating for a lot of reasons.”

Although the strain of algae can grow in only 4 degrees Fahrenheit, it grows slowly and may not be well suited for biofuel use, but Lefebrve did point out that the lipid content in the cells is very high. His team can get 20 percent polyunsaturated fatty acids out of the cell, something he also said could make the strain very appealing. As one of his colleagues says, if everyone in the world consumed the U.S. recommended dose of polyunsaturated fatty acids, “every fish in the ocean would be gone in 18 months.” The strain, coincidentally, “smells like fish and chips.”

The new algae strain, which is still undergoing the name classification process, also lives under a symbiotic relationship with a specific strain of bacteria that surrounds the algae. The research team studying the new strain does not understand why the relationship between the algae strain and the bacteria exists, and Lefebrve said that while the team does know some of what the strain can’t do, they also don’t know what the strain can do. The work will continue due to the high lipid content of the algae, but the main point of Lefebrve’s message at the preconference seminar was that “we should continue prospecting for algae.”

That message was later brought up again at the seminar, as Matt Julius, professor at Saint Cloud State University, provided a virtual tour of his algae research facility in St. Cloud. The facility has been used by Algaedyne and other partners, and features six different environmental units that allow Julius and his team to test and grow strains. Every year for the past 100 years, Julius noted, 185 algal diatom species have been discovered.

Along with Julius’ virtual lab tour, Toby Ahrens, senior scientist for BioProcess Algae, also provided a virtual tour of the co-located algae facility at an ethanol plant in Iowa. Along with Lefebrve, Julius and Ahrens, other speakers provided project updates, novel wastewater treatment and hydrothermal liquefaction approaches based on algae, and Larry Wackett, professor in the department of biochemistry at UM, outlined work his team has been conducting that is similar to the commercial process employed by LS9 and Joule Unlimited, coining his work as a potential “killer app,” a phrase he pointed out the late Steve Jobs made famous, and an idea that he said the algae industry needs to succeed.