The Algae That Eats Other Plants

This is the title of a fascinating blog post at New Energy and Fuel.

Until now, it has been understood that only worms, bacteria, and fungi could digest vegetable cellulose and use it as a source of carbon for their growth and survival. In contrast plants engage in the photosynthesis of carbon dioxide, water, and light.

In a series of experiments, Professor Kruse and his team cultivated the microscopically small green alga species Chlamydomonas reinhardtii in a low carbon dioxide environment and observed that when faced with such a shortage, these single-cell plants can draw energy from neighboring vegetable cellulose instead.

The alga secretes enzymes (called cellulose enzymes) that ‘digest’ the cellulose, breaking it down into smaller sugar components. These are then transported into the cells and transformed into a source of energy: the alga can continue to grow.

The implications for the biotech industry are obvious. Now genetic engineers have a new guide for tweaking the genetics of algae to produce high value chemicals. As others have pointed out, one of the interesting aspects of this type of genetic technology is that much of the new industry will be localized. For example, an organism engineered to convert waste from palm oil processing into high value chemicals will be valuable in south east Asia but not in Canada. Of course the chemicals can be transported to Canada, but it may turn out that the exact same chemicals can be produced cheaper using forestry waste due to another engineered organism. It will be interesting to see how this emerging industry develops.

The rest of “The Algae That Eats Other Plants” can be read here.

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