Monster potential meets potential monster: pros and cons of deploying genetically modified microalgae for biofuels production

Interface Focus. 2013 Feb 6;3(1):20120037. doi: 10.1098/rsfs.2012.0037.


Biofuels production from microalgae attracts much attention but remains an unproven technology. We explore routes to enhance production through modifications to a range of generic microalgal physiological characteristics. Our analysis shows that biofuels production may be enhanced ca fivefold through genetic modification (GM) of factors affecting growth rate, respiration, photoacclimation, photosynthesis efficiency and the minimum cell quotas for nitrogen and phosphorous (N : C and P : C). However, simulations indicate that the ideal GM microalgae for commercial deployment could, on escape to the environment, become a harmful algal bloom species par excellence, with attendant risks to ecosystems and livelihoods. In large measure, this is because an organism able to produce carbohydrate and/or lipid at high rates, providing stock metabolites for biofuels production, will also be able to attain a stoichiometric composition that will be far from optimal as food for the support of zooplankton growth. This composition could suppress or even halt the grazing activity that would otherwise control the microalgal growth in nature. In consequence, we recommend that the genetic manipulation of microalgae, with inherent consequences on a scale comparable to geoengineering, should be considered under strict international regulation.

Keywords: biofuels; genetic modification; microalgae; predator–prey; stoichiometry.