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Fatty Algae May Be Key Player In Replacing Fossil Fuels

By Maria Cook

It's no secret that fossil fuels are bad for the planet. The emissions they cause contribute to climate change, and extracting them can also have an adverse effect on the environment. For these reasons, many scientists around the world have sought to create a more sustainable type of fuel, made in whole or part from organic materials. But although biofuels, as such fuels are called, have been produced in many different variations, making them widely available has proven tricky. 

One factor is cost. Creating biofuel reliable enough for a mass market can be a lengthy and involved process, which means that such fuel would need to cost more than traditional gasoline. But what if scientists were able to create an organic material that wasn't difficult to maintain or produce, and was energy-efficient enough to rival traditional fuels? Scientists in San Diego believe they may have created such a material, in the form of a genetically-modified fatty algae.

Scientists from Exxon Mobile joined with scientists from Synthetic Genomics to create the specialized algae strain. According to Imad Ajjawi of Synthetic Genomics, what makes this strain special is its ability to produce more oil than other, similar algae, while still growing at a rapid rate. 

The secret, according to Ajjawi, is in the algae's fat. The more fat an algae has, the more oil it will naturally produce. He and other scientists made sure that this algae would be particularly fatty, and thus able to produce more oil and energy, by using a gene-editing tool to turn off the algae's fat-regulating genes. The results have been incredible. 

"We realized that it was making a ton of fat. It was actually off the charts. I remember being in the lab, talking to one of the [research assistants] and asking him to show me the data. We were both wondering where the data point was for that specific strain, and it turns out that it was literally off the scale," Ajjawi tells KPBS.