Optimized Breeding of Microalgae for Biofuels

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OPEN 2009
Ames, Iowa
Project Term:
01/15/2010 - 10/14/2011

Critical Need:

Direct solar fuel technologies use photosynthetic microorganisms to produce liquid fuels directly from solar energy. Many photosynthetic microorganisms already produce fuels and fuel precursors, such as fatty acids and hydrocarbons. The challenge is finding cost-effective ways for the microorganisms to efficiently produce and excrete these fuel products in large quantities and in forms that can be easily incorporated into the existing transportation fuel infrastructure. Meeting this challenge is critical because it would help reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil and limit harmful emissions from traditional gasoline-powered vehicles.

Project Innovation + Advantages:

Iowa State University (ISU) is genetically engineering a species of aquatic microalgae called Chlamydomonas for more energy efficient conversion of sunlight and carbon dioxide to biofuels. Current microalgae genetic technologies are imprecise and hinder the rapid engineering of a variety of desirable traits into Chlamydomonas. In the absence of genetic engineering, it remains unlikely that current microalgae technologies for biofuel production will be able to economically compete with traditional fossil fuels. ISU is developing a portfolio of technologies for rapid genetic modification and breeding that will enable greater flexibility for genetic modification on a routine basis. The ISU project will optimize microalgae breeding and genetic engineering to develop efficient, large-scale industrial biofuel production.

Potential Impact:

If successful, ISU would develop a new and enabling biotechnology for the production of biofuels from aquatic microalgae.


Increasing production of domestic biofuels could help the U.S. cut foreign oil imports by 33% in 15 years.


This project could create a carbon-neutral system by recycling carbon dioxide from fuel combustion back into a fuel. It also doesn’t require the arable land or intensive farming practices associated with current biofuel crops.


Widespread use of biofuels would help reduce and stabilize gas prices for consumers.


ARPA-E Program Director:
Dr. Jonathan Burbaum
Project Contact:
Martin Spalding
Press and General Inquiries Email:
Project Contact Email:


Purdue University

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