Scientists have been working since the 1970’s to transform algae into biofuel. Now a new breakthrough could make this alternative energy source a more viable option. Researchers from Synthetic Genomics, Inc. and ExxonMobil were able to edit algae genes to produce two times more lipids. Those lipids can be turned into biofuel that isn’t too different from the diesel we use today.

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Researchers figured out how to tune a genetic switch to regulate the conversion of carbon to oil in the alga Nannochloropsis gaditana. They used multiple editing techniques including CRISPR-Cas9. They were able to boost the algae’s oil content from 20 percent to over 40 percent – and importantly, did so without stunting the algae’s growth rate. The modified algae can produce as much as five grams of lipid per meter per day.

Related: New biofuel from wastewater slashes vehicle CO2 emissions by 80%

Vice president for research and development at ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Company Vijay Swarup said the milestone confirms their belief algae can offer a source of renewable energy. Synthetic Genomics CEO Oliver Fetzer said carbon dioxide and sunlight are two major components necessary for algae production, and both are plentiful and free.

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According to ScienceAlert, a past report indicated biofuels from algae could become a $50 billion industry, with the potential to offer transport fuel and food security.

But we still could be years away from pumping this particular algae-based biofuel into our cars at gas stations. Researcher Imad Ajjawi of Synthetic Genomics told ScienceAlert this step was just a proof of concept, but did describe it as a significant milestone.

According to Greentech Media, organizations have been working on making biofuel from algae for years, without much progress towards commercialization. In fact, they cited former ExxonMobil CEO and current Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who back in 2009 said the work on turning algae into biofuels might not come up with real results for 25 years.

The journal Nature Biotechnology published a study on the concept online this month.

Via ScienceAlert and Synthetic Genomics

Images via ExxonMobil and Wikimedia Commons