A joint research in advanced biofuels from ExxonMobil and Synthetic Genomics has found that oil content could be doubled by modifying an algae strain without significantly restricting its growth.

By deploying advanced cell engineering technologies at Synthetic Genomics, the researchers made modifications to an algae strain to improve its oil content to more than 40% from the original 20%.

Algae have been touted as a potential sustainable fuel option. However, researchers in the past faced difficulties in developing a strain with high oil content and yet can grow quickly. 

One of the main objectives of the ExxonMobil- Synthetic Genomics research collaboration was to boost the algae’s lipid content while reducing the starch and protein content without inhibiting its growth.

Synthetic Genomics CEO Oliver Fetzer said: “The major inputs for phototropic algae production are sunlight and carbon dioxide, two resources that are abundant, sustainable and free.

“Discoveries made through our partnership with ExxonMobil demonstrate how advanced cell engineering capabilities at Synthetic Genomics can unlock biology to optimize how we use these resources and create solutions for many of today’s sustainability challenges – from renewable energy to nutrition and human health.”

A new process for boosting oil production by identifying a genetic switch has been discovered by researchers at the La Jolla-located Synthetic Genomics’ laboratory. The genetic switch can be fine tuned to control the carbon conversion to oil in the algae species, Nannochloropsis gaditana as per the partners.

ExxonMobil Research and Engineering research and development vice president Vijay Swarup said: “This key milestone in our advanced biofuels program confirms our belief that algae can be incredibly productive as a renewable energy source with a corresponding positive contribution to our environment.

“Our work with Synthetic Genomics continues to be an important part of our broader research into lower-emission technologies to reduce the risk of climate change.”

The research team came up with a proof-of-concept method which made the algae double its lipid fraction of cellular carbon in comparison to the parent without any inhibition in its growth.