Researchers at Texas A&M University have identified an enzyme found in common green microalgae that can trigger the production of hydrocarbons, which can then be used to create better forms of biofuel.

In a study featured in the journal Nature Communications, biochemist Dr. Tim Devarenne and his colleagues at the university's AgriLife Research described how an enzyme produced by the microalgae Botryococcus braunii can be used on plants in order to produce significant amounts of fuel-grade oil.

Devarenne explained that the liquid hydrocarbons that these microorganisms create can already be found in various petroleum deposits, allowing them to turn into fuel.

He said that Botryococcus are not difficult to find as they are virtually in every pond or lake in the world. They are known to thrive both in brackish water and freshwater. The only body of water that Botryococcus cannot be found is in seawater.

Liquid hydrocarbons produced by these green microalgae can be used as an alternative fuel source to fossil fuels, which can help keep gas and oil in the ground. They can also be easily processed using the technology and infrastructure that are already in use today.

Despite these advantages, using Botryococcus hydrocarbons as fuel still carry its own downsides.

Since it still requires burning in order to generate energy, these hydrocarbons can generate pollutants, making them less clean compared to wind and solar power.

Another drawback is that Botryococcus can only produce low amounts of oil naturally, which severely limits their potential as biofuel sources.

Devarenne and his team singled out an enzyme from Botryococcus known as lycopaoctaene synthase that is responsible for controlling the oil production of these microorganisms.

They discovered that by placing the enzyme on certain plants, such as tobacco, or other forms of algae, they can yield higher amounts of fuel-grade oil.

Devarenne said that a single Botryococcus cell typically takes about a week to double, while faster growing algae can double in just six hours.

The idea behind their study is to transfer the genetic code of oil-producing Botryococcus into faster growing algae or plants so that they can trigger the creation of larger amounts of biofuels.

While they have already identified gene candidates for their experiment, the researchers said they are still trying to decipher the pathway that would allow them to create a commercial product.

Photo: Abhishek Shirali | Flickr 

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