Biofuels are a promising alternative for gasoline powered transportation that historically comes from petroleum. Biofuel research at the NMC includes developing photosynthetic carbon reduction pathways in green algae and plants, research on synthetic carbon fixation pathways to meet domestic energy demands and sustainable production, improving photosynthetic efficiency and carbon concentrating efficiency in biofuel feedstocks, and investigating strategies for containment of organisms that affect the health/yield of the algae essential for biofuel production. The NMC believes biofuels research is important to help safeguard energy security by reducing the world’s reliance on fossil energy sources. Read below for information on ongoing and recently completed biofuels research at the NMC:


Biomedical Engineering - New Mexico Consortium

Algal Translational Genomics: Deciphering the Breadth and Depth of Carbon Metabolism

Subtitle: Scenedesmus Functional Genome Analysis

Shawn Starkenburg, LANL,
Joseph Msanne, NMC

Industrial-scale production of algal biomass using wastewater that is rich with organic matter would provide a cost-effective means to maximize productivity and improve biofuel yield yet the genetic basis for this physiological activity is larger unknown. The growing availability of genome sequences, including a novel production strain Scenedesmus, enable us to translate this genomic information into functional knowledge of the physiological characteristics of these strains.  Nevertheless, efforts to translate genomic data into fundamental understanding of carbon metabolism, and production of biomass and biomaterials is still lagging, delaying improvements in cultivation practices.  This project will begin this work by focusing on determining the primary routes of organic and inorganic carbon assimilation through a comparative genomic analysis of the Genera Scenedesmus, resulting in an improved and curated in silico reconstruction of carbon utilization.  These in silico models will be curated and validated through phenotyping experiments to determine which carbon sources are metabolized (and under what conditions) promote the most efficient use of carbon to maximize productivity.

PACE: Producing Algae for Co-products and Energy

Taraka Dale, Los Alamos National Lab
Scott Twary, Los Alamos National Lab
Jim Coons, Los Alamos National Lab
Sangeeta Negi, Los Alamos National Lab, NMC Joint Appointment
Jospeh Msanne, New Mexico Consortium
Nilusha Maduwanthi Sudasinghe Appuhamilage, Los Alamos National Lab
Cesar Raul Gonzalez-Esquer, Los Alamos National Lab
Taylor Britton, UNM/NMC Student

This research seeks to make algal biofuels more marketable by focusing on methods to improve algal productivity, the cultivation process, and harvesting. Under the PACE consortium researchers are targeting improvements to carbon concentrating mechanisms in Chlorella and Nannochloropsis algae to improve biomass productivity. Overexpression of bicarbonate transporter pumps and carbonic anhydrase enzymes will be explored for the changes in carbon use efficiency and carbon partitioning throughout carbon limiting and carbon excess growth environments.

Plant Biology - New Mexico Consortium

Generating Phototropin and Neochrome Mutants in Algal Production Strains

Shawn Starkenburg, LANL

In this LANL project, biofuels derived from algae have the potential to reach cost competitive prices with petroleum-based fuels within the next decade if algal biomass growth rates can be increased significantly.  Toward this goal, we are attempting to modify the functionality of two algal photoreceptors (phototropin and neochrome) to improve growth responses in rapidly changing light conditions (i.e. outdoor environments) and expanding the spectrum of wavelengths that could enhance photosynthetic capabilities to increase biomass accumulation rates two-fold. We propose to study and improve the biomass accumulation rates of two production strains:  Scenedesmus obliquus and Picochlorum strain DOE101.  These organisms were selected for both their high production value in terms of their biomass accumulation rates as well as the availability of genetic transformation methods for genetic modification.


Biomass Separation, Biopolymer Concentraion and Salt Removal from a Marine Cyanobacterial Culture

Jim Coons, Los Alamos National Laboratory

This research investigated ultrasonic separation and other dewatering technologies to reduce the energy/cost of biomass dewatering for cyanobacteria cultures. Cyanobacteria at the large end of the size spectrum were also investigated.

Plant Biology - New Mexico Consortium

Functional Characterization of Cellular Metabolism

Scott Twary, PI, Los Alamos National Laboratory
Babetta Marrone, Co-I, Los Alamos National Laboratory
Christina Steadman, LANL Postdoc
Shounak Banerjee, LANL Postdoc
Claire Sanders, LANL Technologist
Jenna Schambach, LANL Post Bac Student

This work involved three main aspects that will be integrated together into a new algae strain improvement process. First, flow cytometry assays were applied for greater characcterization of algae cell physiology under growth or stress conditions. Second, epigenetic characterization were completed to understand novel regulation of cell responses to environmental stress. Third, genome engineering through CRISPR/Cas techniques were used to understand nitrogen sensing and signaling pathways controlling lipid induction.

Amanda Barry of Los Alamos’s Bioenergy & Biome Sciences group

Boosting Algal Biomass for Biofuels with Plant Substrate Utilization

Amanda Barry, PI, LANL Staff Scientist
Jenna Schambach, LANL
Anna Finck, LANL

This LANL project looked at how algae uses raw plants substrate as a carbon energy source. A strain of microalgae, Auxenochlorella protothecoides, had been shown to directly degrade and use non-food plant substrates, such as switchgrass, for better cell growth and lipid production. This boosts this algae’s potential to be used as a biofuel and increases our understanding of how to make more efficient biofuels. Read more at: https://www.lanl.gov/discover/news-release-archive/2018/July/0717-algae-feeding-plants.php

Photo caption: LANL Photo showing Amanda Barry, the lead author of this study.
Plant Biology - New Mexico Consortium

Success Through Synergy: Increasing Cultivation Yield & Stability with Rationally Designed Consortia

Alina Corcoran, Research Scientist NMC, Guest Scientist LANL, Affiliate Faculty NMSU
Heather Martinez, Lab and Field Technician, NMC/NMSU
Anthony Granite, Lab and Field Technician, NMC/NMSU
Kayley You Mak, Research Technician, NMC

The overall goal of this project is to increase productivity of Nannochloropsis grown in open, outdoor, brackish systems to double the current state-of-technology baseline. To achieve this goal, we are pursuing two pipelines in the lab: the development of rationally-designed intra-generic Nannochloropsis consortia and the development of bacteria-Nannochloropsis consortia. Winning (complex) consortia will be tested in bioreactor experiments and field trials. This work is being in collaboration with Shawn Starkenburg’s group at LANL.

Plant Biology - New Mexico Consortium

Algae Seed Project and Biochemical Conversion Pathway

Jim Coons, Los Alamos National Laboratory

This research investigates ultrasonic separation as a means to reduce the energy/cost of biomass dewatering for algal biofuels and lignin valorization.


Algae Strain Characterization and Improvement for Advanced Biofuels and Bioproducts
Taraka Dale,
Sangeeta Negi