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NEWS
Community of Algae and Fungi Power Biofuel Production System
November 2, 2018

Michigan State University (MSU) scientists have a new proof of concept for a biofuel production platform that uses two species of marine algae and soil fungi. It lowers cultivation and harvesting costs and increases productivity, factors that currently hold back biofuels from being widely adopted.


When scientists place the organisms in the same environment, the algae (green) attach to the fungi (brown). Credit: Zhi-Yan Du and Igor Houwat; MSU-DOE Plant Research Laboratory, 2018.

According to information, the species of alga, Nannochloropsis oceanica, and fungus, Mortierella elongata, both produce oils that we can harvest for human use. With these oils, we could make products like biofuels to power our cars or omega-3 fatty acids that are good for heart health.

When scientists place the two organisms in the same environment, the tiny algae attach to the fungi to form big masses that are visible to the naked eye. This aggregation method is called bio-flocculation.

When harvested together, the organisms yield more oil than if they were cultivated and harvested each on their own.

“We used natural organisms with high affinity for each other,” says Zhi-Yan (Rock) Du, the study’s first author. “The algae are very productive, and the fungus we use is neither toxic to us nor edible. It’s a very common soil fungus that can be found in your back yard.”

Other advantages reported by the researchers:
• The system is sustainable, since it doesn’t rely on fossil fuels. The fungi grow on sewage or food waste, while the algae grow in sea water.
• It is cheaper to harvest, as the big masses of algae and fungi are easily captured with simple tools, like a piece of mesh.
• The method is potentially easier to scale, as the organisms are wild strains that have not been genetically modified. They pose no risks of infecting any environment they come in contact with.

Bio-flocculation is a relatively new approach. Biofuels systems tend to rely on one species, such as algae, but they are held back by productivity and cost problems.

First, systems that only rely on algae suffer from low oil productivity.

The second problem is the high cost of harvesting oil, because algae are tiny and hard to collect. Harvesting can take up to 50% of oil production costs.

“With bio-flocculation, the aggregates of fungi and algae are easy to harvest with simple and cheap tools,” Du says.

Looking forward, the scientists want to mass produce biofuels with this system. They also know the entire genomes of both organisms and could use genetic engineering tools to further improve the method.

The study was conducted in the labs of Christoph Benning and Gregory Bonito. It is published in the journal Biotechnology for Biofuels. It was primarily funded by the US Department of Energy, Office of Basic Energy Sciences.


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