Photosynthetic microalgae such as Chlamydomonas reinhardtii (Chlamy for short) have the potential to become sustainable biofactories for renewable biofuels and a wide variety of other valuable commodities. However, biofuel production using microalgae is not yet profitable because the underlying economics of production are not favorable. One major challenge in algae-based biofuel manufacturing is that the conditions that stimulate algae to make copious amounts of energy-rich lipids that can be harvested to make “bio oil”, also inhibit algal growth. In an effort to address this challenge, a team lead by Dr. de Lomana at the Institute for Systems Biology studied how stress causes Chlamy to convert photosynthetically sequestered carbon dioxide (CO2) into lipids. Dr. de Lomana and his colleagues discovered that, upon experiencing nitrogen starvation stress, a gene regulatory program in Chlamy triggers a sequence of events spanning 12 minutes to 8 hours. They discovered how this elegantly coordinated sequence of events remodel the metabolism of Chlamy to simultaneously arrest growth and induce lipid accumulation. The systems-level knowledge generated by Dr. de Lomana and his colleagues is a potential game-changer in enabling rational strategies to enhance lipid accumulation by microalgae, thereby making the biofuel market competitive. This work was carried out by a highly diverse group of researchers at the Baliga Lab, Institute for Systems Biology, Seattle, WA. Leading author, Dr. de Lomana earned a B.S. in Biology and M.S. in Biochemistry from Navarra University, Pamplona, Spain, and a PhD in Biomedicine from Pompeu Fabra University, Barcelona, Spain. During his postdoc research in Prof. Andreas Wagner group, he worked on (1) how mutations map in parameter space from healthy to disease phenotype, and (2) how to select most likely models given experimental time series data sets. Currently, as a postdoc at the Baliga Lab, his research interests align with gene regulatory network modeling of microorganisms, including how they adapt to structured environments. Dr. Jacob Valenzuela earned a B.S in Biology with an emphasis on physiology at California Polytechnic State University. His research in phenotypic plasticity of intertidal species led him to pursue a PhD in Biochemistry at Montana State University. Currently, as a postdoctoral fellow, his research primarily focuses on the effect of ocean acidification on marine diatoms as well as continued research oil production in green algae and developing new techniques to enhance their efficiency. Warren Carter, research associate on the project, earned his B.S. in Biology with a concentration in molecular biology research, from Gonzaga University, Spokane, WA. In the Baliga Lab, his focus is on how to optimize lipid and biomass production within green-microalgae by rational re-engineering of the organisms’ gene regulatory program. Other contributors to the project include Drs. Saheed Imam, Serdar Turkarslan, and Monica Orellana.
Originally published: Minority Microbiology Mentor Newsletter - April 2016