Ahlem Jebali, a postdoctoral research scientist at the New Mexico Consortium (NMC) who specializes in algal biotechnology, is currently working on the Optimizing Selection Pressures and Pest Management to Maximize Algal Biomass Yield (OSPREY) project.
Ahlem received her PhD in Biology Engineering completing a joint supervised thesis between the University of Sfax (National Engineering School of Sfax), Tunisia and University of Almería (Chemical Engineering Department), Spain. For her thesis, she worked on isolating and cultivating marine and freshwater microalgae strains in pilot and lab scale reactors, outdoors and indoors in batch and continuous mode. She focused on coupling wastewater treatment to microalgae cultivation in view of cost-effective biofuel production. Prior to getting her PhD, she received her undergraduate degree in Biology Engineering and a master degree in Fuel Processing Engineering. Both diplomas were from the National Engineering School of Sfax, University of Sfax (Tunisia).
Before coming to NMC, she held a postdoctoral position at the Centre of Biotechnology of Sfax, Tunisia, where she trained at the faculty of Pharmacy of Paris, University of Paris Descartes (France) working on the extraction of high added value molecules from microalgae cultivated on olive mill wastewater (OMW). Additionally, as an invited researcher at La Rochelle University (France), she worked on assessing in vitro the anti-proliferative activity of the micoalgal extracts.
Ahlem joined NMC in September 2020 and works with Alina Corcoran, NMC Research Scientist, on the OSPREY project funded by the DOE. The project team is multidisciplinary and includes researchers from Los Alamos National Laboratory, the University of California San Diego, New Mexico State University, Cyanotech, Phase Genomics, and Qualitas Health.
The OSPREY project addresses process limitations in the algal cultivation industry stemming from the mismatch between selection pressures in the lab and field. In the biofuel industry scientists often create algal strains with high productivity in the lab, only to find these strains fail when cultured in the field. Conversely, field strains can be robust, but may lack desired qualities such as high lipid content.
This project is working to balance the selection pressures that strains experience in the lab with those they experience in the field, ultimately to make strains that are both productive and resilient to environmental stressors. Researchers at each location will grow the same strain for several years to study how it changes. Does it evolve to be more resilient to a desert environment versus a coastal environment? The researchers hope to capture its best qualities and use them to create more productive strains.
The OSPREY project aims at improving the productivity up to 50% and optimizing biomass composition through increasing microalgae stability in the field and developing new strain breeding methods and pest tracking and management techniques. This research is unique because it relies on natural, outdoor selection pressures to drive fitness in the algal strains that have already been identified as standards in the industry.
Ahlem and her team hope that the project outputs will generate a viable route to improve algal productivity and biofuel yield.
This field trials of algal strains project is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) under the Bioenergy Technologies Office Award Number DE-EE0008902.
Article by Carrie Talus