Algae Evolution & Biotechnology

Algae are the most productive photosynthetic organisms on earth and their ancient ancestors produced much of the fossil fuels we use.  Algae generate natural products including essential dietary fatty acids and biofuels; however, evolution under cultivation may cause them to lose desirable traits or acquire new ones that may or may not be beneficial.  Our lab is part of an interdisciplinary team working to understand how adaptation to different climates and assembly of unique microbial communities affect the traits and productivity of farmed algae.

Microalgae evolution

Microalgae grown outdoors are subjected to natural fluctuating environmental conditions that can select for different novel mutations in different environments. These adaptations could enhance growth and productivity in the long-term; however, the phenotypic responses triggered by these selective pressures are poorly understood.

Our interdisciplinary project generated field adapted Nannochloropsis strains growing in outdoor conditions at four different sites located in New Mexico, Hawaii, Texas and California.

This research aims to identify the following:
(1) The effects of local adaptation of Nannochloropsis field-strains to temperature and light. We are currently analyzing how growth varies with seasonal changes and comparing field strains performance in a common garden experiment.

(2) Generating adapted strains capable of growing in sub-optimal environmental conditions using directed evolution experiments. We are evaluating how growing in limiting conditions (low light, nutrients and temperature) over many generations can modify fitness in new environments and control conditions. We are using a multi-driver design that allows us to quantify interactions.

Natural products and bioenergy

Ecological and evolutionary instability are two of the main problems in algae cultivation. We test how ecological and evolutionary principles can be used to design productive and resilient systems for the production of a variety of natural products including bioenergy. We partner with the U.S. Department of Energy and several commercial companies to understand the evolution and ecology of algae growing in large-scale industrial systems.