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The increasing world population and living standards have enlarged the demand for food, feed, and for chemicals. Traditional fossil fuel based commodities need to be replaced, not only because these resources are finite, but also to relieve the impact of carbon emission and pollution, resulting from fossil fuel derived processes. Much attention is on using plants to produce sustainable, renewable alternatives to petrochemical based processes. Palm oil is the crop with the highest lipid yield known today, but the production of palm oil causes deforestation on a large scale. Microalgae are a promising platform for the production of sustainable commodity products. A commodity product that can be produced in microalgae is triacylglycerol (TAG). The TAG molecules that are accumulated in microalgae are comparable to the TAG profiles of commonly used vegetable oils, and can directly be applied for edible oil as well as for biodiesel production. Currently, microalgae derived products have proven to be functional and a potential replacement for conventional crops. However, microalgae derived products, especially TAGs, are not economically feasible yet. In order to make microalgal derived products a reality we need to decrease the production costs by smart technological solutions, biological understanding and metabolic engineering.
To get more insight in the lipid accumulation mechanism of microalgae, and to define targets for future strain improvement strategies, transcriptome sequencing of the oleaginous microalgae Neochloris oleoabundans was done. This oleaginous microalga can be cultivated in fresh water as well as salt water. The possibility to use salt water gives opportunities for reducing production costs and fresh water footprint for large scale cultivation.
In chapter 2 the lipid accumulation pathway was studied to gain insight in the gene regulation 24 hours after nitrogen was depleted. Oil accumulation is increased under nitrogen depleted conditions in a comparable way in both fresh and salt water. The transcriptome sequencing revealed a number of genes, such as glycerol-3-phosphate acyltransferase and via glycerol-3-phosphate dehydrogenase, that are of special interest and can be targeted to increase TAG accumulation in microalgae. NMR spectroscopy revealed an increase in proline content in saline adapted cells, which was supported by up regulation of the genes involved in proline biosynthesis. In addition to proline, the ascorbate-glutathione cycle seems to be of importance for successful osmoregulation by removal of reactive oxygen species in N. oleoabundans, because multiple genes in this pathway were upregulated under salt conditions. The mechanism behind the biosynthesis of compatible osmolytes in N. oleoabundans can be used to improve salt resistance in other industrially relevant microalgal strains.
Another very promising candidate for TAG production is the oleaginous green microalga Scenedesmus obliquus.
In chapter 3, UV mutagenesis was used to create starchless mutants, since no transformation approach was available for this species, due to its rigid and robust cell wall. All five starchless mutants that were isolated from over 3500 screened mutants, showed an increased triacylglycerol productivity. All five starchless mutants showed a decreased or completely absent starch content. In parallel, an increased TAG accumulation rate was observed for the starchless mutants and no substantial decrease in biomass productivity was perceived. The most promising mutant (Slm1) showed an increase in TFA productivity of 41% at 4 days after nitrogen depletion and reached a TAG content of 49.4% (%CDW).
In chapter 4 the Slm1 strain was compared to the wild type strain using photobioreactors. In the wild type, TAG and starch accumulated simultaneously during initial nitrogen starvation, and starch was subsequently degraded and likely converted into TAG. The Slm1 did not produce starch and the carbon and energy acquired from photosynthesis was partitioned towards TAG synthesis. This resulted in an increase of the maximum TAG content in Slm1 to 57% (%CDW) compared to 45% (%CDW) in the wild type. Furthermore, it increased the maximum yield of TAG on light by 51%, from 0.144 in the wild type to 0.217 g TAG mol-1 photon-1 in the Slm1 mutant. No differences in photosynthetic efficiency between the Slm1 mutant and the wild type were observed, indicating that the mutation specifically improved carbon partitioning towards TAG and the photosynthetic capacity was not affected.
To identify the mutation that caused the starchless phenotype of Slm1 the transcriptome of both the wild type and the Slm1 mutant was sequenced as described in chapter 5. A single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) was discovered in the small subunit of the starch biosynthesis rate-controlling enzyme ADP-glucose pyrophosphorylase, which resulted in the introduction of a STOP codon in the messenger RNA of the enzyme. The characterization of the mutation increases the understanding of carbon partitioning in oleaginous microalgae, leading to a promising target for future genetic engineering approaches to increase TAG accumulation in microalgae.
To use the insight that is gained in chapters 2-5 for metabolic engineering of TAG accumulation and carbon partitioning, a metabolic engineering toolbox is required. However, the development of transformation protocols for new and less well studied industrially relevant microalgae is challenging. In chapter 6, a simple and effective tool for the optimization of transformation protocols is proposed. Optimal voltage settings were determined for five microalgae: C. reinhardtii, Chlorella vulgaris, N. oleoabundans, S. obliquus, and Nannochloropsis sp. This method can be used to speed up the screening process for species that are susceptible for transformation and to successfully develop transformation strategies for industrially relevant microalgae, which lack an efficient transformation protocol.
In addition to the increase in productivity, improving the quality in terms of fatty acid composition of TAG molecules would be desired as well. For example, the accumulation of stearic acid rich TAG molecules is of special interest, because of the improved structural properties. The lipid accumulating starchless mutant of the model species C. reinhardtii BAFJ5 was used as model species in chapter 7, since genetic toolbox is well established for this species. In this chapter, stearoyl-ACP desaturase (SAD), is silenced by artificial microRNA. The mRNA levels for SAD were reduced after the silencing construct was induced. In one of the strains, the reduction in SAD mRNA resulted in a doubling of the stearic acid content in triacylglycerol molecules, which shows that increasing the fraction of stearic acid in TAG is possible. Furthermore, we hypothesize that in addition to direct conversion in the chloroplast, C. reinhardtii is able to redirect stearic acid from the chloroplast to the cytosol and convert it to oleic acid in the endoplasmic reticulum by stearoyl-CoA desaturase.
In chapter 8, an outlook is given on microalgal strain improvement strategies for the future, reflecting on the results obtained in this thesis. Also a roadmap is suggested to get genetically modified microalgal derived products on the market. The results presented in this thesis, provide a significant improvement in the understanding of TAG accumulation and carbon partitioning in oleaginous microalgae. Furthermore, improved microalgal strains with increased TAG accumulation or improved TAG fatty acid composition under nitrogen depleted conditions were generated. In addition, an outlook is presented in which the major bottlenecks are presented in future industrial applications of microalgae.
|Qualification||Doctor of Philosophy|
|Award date||9 Oct 2015|
|Place of Publication||Wageningen|
|Publication status||Published - 2015|
- triacylglycerol lipase
- algae culture
- biomass production