Biotechnology of Algae
The term "algae" encompasses a variety of organisms found throughout the world in or near bodies of water. Algae species are estimated to number in the tens of thousands. Though most algae are photosynthetic or autotrophic, some are heterotrophic, deriving energy from the uptake of organic carbon such as cellulosic material.
Because algae are naturally able to replicate rapidly and produce oils, proteins, alcohols, and biomass, they have attracted the attention of researchers and industrial producers seeking alternatives to oil.
Algae thrive on organic carbon or CO2 and nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus. Growth conditions and the availability of sunlight, carbon and nutrients affect the metabolism of algae and whether they produce lipids or carbohydrates. However, manipulation of nutrients has not proved successful in increasing algal productivity. Researchers, for instance, have found that when algae naturally produce hydrocarbons – molecules that can most readily substitute for today's petroleum uses –growth and reproduction are limited.
Biotechnology research goals therefore include finding ways to increase the reproductive rate, improve metabolism of inputs, and enhance the production of desired oils, fuel-grade alcohols, or proteins in useful species. Researchers have found that many algae species are adaptable to genetic engineering, expressing complex proteins and accumulating recombinant proteins to very high levels.