Issue 13.5: October/November 2010

Designer Algae

Story by Alex Salkever

Photos by Kyle Rothenborg

In an unremarkable parking lot behind the Manoa Innovation Center stand racks of green, liquid-filled tubes. They look like fluorescent light bulbs filled with glowing, bright green goop. This vibrant liquid, slimy and cool to the touch, could one day replace oil from the Middle East and power everything from motorcycles to fighter jets. It could create a supervitamin that enhances brain activity and optimizes health. It could feed millions upon millions of oysters, abalone and shrimp around the globe (thus, of course, feeding us). Clearly, this is no ordinary goop, and the laughing, redheaded woman tending it is no ordinary plant scientist.

A University of Hawai‘i professor, plant biologist and talented hybridizer, Heidi Kuehnle earned a reputation as a respected applied floriculturalist. She bred dozens of new types of orchids and anthurium, including the “Princess Aiko,” a diminutive pink flower that was the first scented anthurium ever released for commercial sale.

But five years ago, Kuehnle began applying her magical green thumb to an even greener crop.

Microalgae are tiny plants that inhabit the world’s fresh and salt waters; the varieties Kuehnle cultivates are all from the Hawaiian Islands. The leap from breeding orchids to algae is not a big one, at least from a biological perspective. Algae are plants and behave much like other flora, though with some key differences: They are the fastest-growing plants on the planet, able to double in mass several times a day. They’re comparatively easy to hybridize, and a biologist can develop strains that synthesize a variety of useful chemicals and oils. Taking advantage of these characteristics, as Kuehnle has, a tube of algae can become a supercharged factory for biodiesel, ethanol and omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Armed with decades of experience and grant funding, Kuehnle set to work developing algae that could quickly and cleanly produce biofuels in concentrations as high as 50 percent of their biomass. Soon Kuehnle was breeding algae superior to most other strains in terms of resilience, productivity and malleability (three key attributes for commercial algae).

A business took shape in Kuehnle’s mind: She would grow algae, perfect them and sell them. In a world hungry for cleaner energy, algae had a lot more growth potential (pun intended) than bending orchids and anthurium to her will.

That Kuenhle landed in the microalgae business is something that, in hindsight, was perhaps a birthright. She grew up surrounded by science and innovation. Her father, Manfred Kuehnle, is an engineer who has patented numerous inventions—including underwater electric turbines and magnetic strips on credit cards—and also launched a handful of successful companies. Heidi grew up loving plants and earned a PhD in plant breeding from Cornell University in 1988. Diploma in hand, she landed in the Islands to take a post as junior professor at the University of Hawai‘i’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, where in addition to developing new flowers, she was a prolific scholar, authoring or co-authoring more than a hundred studies.

When Kuehnle decided to pursue algae, she collaborated with her father to engineer new cultivation systems. Together they developed new techniques to expedite hybridization, to make algae more robust and to endow them with the ability to grow in either fresh or saltwater ponds. Along the way Kuehnle identified and patented numerous strains of useful algae, species that already produced small quantities of desirable substances such as oils closely related to biodiesel. This early phase of her research was supported by more than $1 million in US government research grants, and soon her fledgling company, Kuehnle AgroSystems, was ready to play on a bigger field.

 


 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 



Heidi Kuehnle
From 2005 through 2007 the world experienced an enormous run-up in oil prices. Simultaneously, costly wars in the Middle East crystallized the ongoing dangers of reliance on foreign oil. Those two catalysts sparked an algae arms race as dozens of startups emerged to harness the fecundity of microalgae to produce biofuels. The first stage of that race consisted of scouring the world’s oceans, lakes and rivers to find suitable candidates for development. And there are plenty: The National Renewable Energy Laboratory has identified roughly 300 species of diatomaceous (single-cell) and green algae—most in the genera Amphora, Cymbella and Chlorella—as strongly lipophilic, i.e., they store fatty molecules. More than 400 new species of algae are discovered each year, and there are likely thousands of undiscovered species lurking in waters around the globe.

Kuehnle stepped up her work and collected thousands of types of algae. Aware of the risk of bringing alien species to Hawai‘i, she collected all of her specimens in Island waters. “We are mindful of the sensitivity of Hawai‘i to foreign species and the damage these things can cause. … But Hawai‘i has so much biodiversity we actually had no problems finding exactly what we needed in Hawaiian waters,” Kuehnle says. In the lab she and her staff screened the specimens for useful traits like rapid growth, disease resistance and resilience; these serve as the templates for customized algae.

For a client, KAS finds out what characteristics are desired and then engineers an alga that fulfills the criteria. For example, if a biofuels producer wants an alga that produces a type of oil needed for, say, engine lubrication, KAS selects a likely cultivar and manipulates its DNA to boost its ability to produce that oil. The process is not an exact science; it often takes considerable time and several false starts, but once KAS creates the right organism, it stores samples for future use. Think of it as a sperm bank for biofuels. From then on, says Kuehnle, clients can be sure that shipments of algae from KAS contain only the right cultivars. “When you order algae from, say, a university, you might order one species. … The package arrives, it looks green, it seems good, but it actually contains considerable amounts of another species,” says Kuehnle. To guarantee the purity and efficacy of its algae, KAS has created the world’s first algae certification program: DNA testing assures that the algae KAS ships contain only the desired strain.

Already KAS is becoming a key supplier to important biofuel projects. The company is partnering with Science Applications International, a multibillion-dollar research company focused on the defense market, to produce algae-based jet fuels for the US military. The military sees algae as a way to fly its planes at lower cost. More important, algae-based jet fuel would eliminate the need to rely on unstable regimes or to ship fuel through pirate-infested waters. Sound far-fetched? The Air Force is planning on converting some of its planes to algae-produced biofuel in 2011. The Blue Angels may well have to change their name.


 

While biofuel might be the prime mover for KAS, it’s not the only market for designer algae. Nutraceutical companies, which have historically struggled to maintain high yields, are looking to KAS to supply algae that produce DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), an omega-3 fatty acid also found in fish oil. Studies show that DHA is linked to improved mental development and intelligence, so it’s a common ingredient in premium infant formula; DHA produced by microalgae has the added benefit of being vegetarian. Yet another possibility is the creation of algae that can grow optimal mixes of omega-3 and omega-6 oils. “You can really fine-tune these organisms and turn them into producers of customized nutritional supplements. Companies wouldn’t have to blend the oils. They could just grow them both in the same algae or in the same pond,” says Kuehnle.

Another likely use is as a potent seed stock for aquaculture. Pond-based aquaculture operations growing filter feeders such as oysters used to grow their own algae. But that took almost as much time and energy as growing the crop itself, so aquaculturists resorted to buying dried, dead algae grown elsewhere. Kuehnle hopes to convince these operations to buy her seed stock, which can be added directly to the tanks and will quickly grow to feed the animals. “Shrimp and other algae eaters are much healthier and grow much more quickly if they are fed a diet of live algae,” says Kuehnle. To this end, KAS has approached state and federal agencies to propose the creation of dual-purpose algae-and-shrimp farms in the Gulf of Mexico region. This would create a land-based, oil-free seafood industry that could help replace a fishery decimated by the Deepwater Horizon spill and provide opportunities to affected shrimpers.

To date, KAS has relied on investments and research grants from government agencies. The company is now looking to raise venture capital to fund a facility here in Hawai‘i that would allow it to dramatically increase its output. Beyond making money, though, Kuehnle aims to grow a business that improves the world. In her vision of an algae-powered future, oil tankers will no longer be needed because algae biofuels will have eliminated the need to ship oil. Pharmaceutical companies will use specialized algae to quickly grow flu vaccines. Health nuts will toss out their fish oil capsules and replace them with purer, more healthful and more environmentally friendly algae oil capsules. This vision will be enabled, at least in part, by the library of algae species stored in Hawai‘i, a Noah’s Ark of organisms from the most remote island chain on Earth.