Pioneering Spirit in the Pacific Northwest

By Kolby Hoagland | October 25, 2013

At this year’s Algae Biomass Summit in Orlando, I had the pleasure of meeting and speaking at length with two algae researchers from the University of Washington-Seattle, Rose Ann Cattolico and Stephanie Brunelle. As fellow Seattle residents, Cattolico and Brunelle kindly invited me to their lab once we were back in Seattle to have a closer look at their algae research. Yesterday, I took them up on the offer and spent the morning at Cattolico Laboratory on the UW-Seattle campus. Brunelle, who serves as a post-doctoral fellow in Cattolico Lab, led me on the tour and answered my onslaught of questions regarding the applicability of their research to commercial algae production.

From my time at Cattolico Lab, I learned a lot about algae systems biology and observed how Cattolico and Brunelle are pushing the frontier of algae research. By primarily analyzing haptophytes, commonly known as “golden brown algae”, Cattolico and her team are pursuing an algae research path less-travelled. The majority of past and present research around the use of algae as an input for biofuel and biobased products resides in the more popular green algae. According to Brunelle, the bulk of algae research is based on green algae because, along with its high productivity of lipids, a greater body of scientific research exists on green algae than on haptophytes. Higher plants (trees, grasses, etc.) evolved from green algae and thus more is understood on green algae’s evolution and biology. Brunelle put into context the importance of their research by explaining that the enormity and age of all algal genomes is worth investigating for genetic keys that very well may ulock the known potential of algae as an industrial input. The golden-brown tinge algae that fill Cattolico Lab's growth chambers have strong lipid productivity and an interesting genetic code that could provide clues for strain development and systems management.

Cattolico, Brunelle, and the other researchers in Cattolico Lab are pushing the frontier of what is biologically known about algae, particularly haptophytes. The great diversity among all types of algae requires researchers like Cattolico and Brunelle to advance a greater understanding of less conventional genetic pools of algae if solutions to current algae production problems are to be found. Historically, scientific discoveries have not been made by following the well-travelled path but, rather, by forging new ground into uncharted areas. Fittingly, Cattolico Laboratory at UW-Seattle embodies a pioneering characteristic towards uncovering solutions that will make commercial algae production a reality.

I would like to thank those at Cattolico Lab for allowing me disrupt their day to see and better understand their work. Thank you.