Year/Course: 2011-2012, Easter 2012

Contact: Dr Thomas Mock, University of East Anglia
Mentor: Dr. Julian White

The global market for algal biomass is blooming, attracting investment and interest from organisations wishing to utilise algae to produce high quality and sustainable biofuels, food supplements, animal-feed, high value co-products such as nutraceuticals, pharmaceuticals, bioplastics, biochemicals, fertilizers and cosmetics.

Scientists at the University of East Anglia have discovered a novel gene that significantly accelerates the growth of commercially used microalgae. Marine diatoms exhibit a “bloom and bust” life cycle whereby they can rapidly replicate when conditions are favourable. This novel gene is responsible for the mechanism that enables translation of favourable environmental conditions into fast growth, with a phenotype that allows for accelerated growth, which outcompetes commercial wild type strains.

A key strategy is to grow commercial production algal strains as fast as possible to obtain high biomass inexpensively and in a short amount of time. Key factors that affect algal growth and metabolism are sunlight, CO2, water, nutrients (e.g. phosphorus, nitrogen and micronutrients such as iron) and temperature.

This novel gene offers the opportunity to grow algae faster without additional nutrients or increased light, providing solutions to companies wishing to develop commercial algal strains with increased yields and reduced algal growth costs.

The question for the i-Team is to assess and analyse the market opportunities for this algal gene, and identify the best opportunities for it to be adopted in commercial algal systems.