Microalgal Exploration


Microalgae are extremely abundant and important microorganisms, which affect a variety of environmental factors. Microalgae create almost half of the oxygen in the atmosphere and also sequesters greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide, in order to grow. Microalgae can be exposed to diverse environmental stimulations, which affect their response. Microalgae has been used in many industries including cosmetics, renewable energy, and agriculture and its uses are vast beyond those industries into carbon dioxide capture. One of the most novel areas of research concerning microalgae is its potential use as a feedstock for biofuel. 

Presently, two-thirds of America’s petroleum is imported, 60% of which is used for transportation fuels. Mandated by the Energy Independence Act of 2007, the United States must have at least 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels incorporated into the transportation fuel industry by 2022. To meet the new requirement, energy independence, and cleaner fuel sources, multiple avenues of renewable energy sources have been explored including biomass, solar, hydro, wind, and nuclear. Of the biomass options, microalgae is attractive in comparison to other crops because (1) it has a very high oil/lipid yield, over 500 times that of corn; (2) it does not compete with American food supply; (3) it does not compete for water or land resources because it can grow in uninhabitable, unfertile areas; (4) it has a higher productivity than any of the other crops; (5) it can be used in the sanitation industry to capture carbon dioxide, treat waste water, and release clean oxygen as a byproduct; and (6) the algae by-products – aside from its lipids and the other energy portion of the algae cell – can be used for other purposes. 

What are we doing with the microalgae?

Within my research thus far, we are investigating the environmental stimulation mode of mechanics which is directly related to their environment such as fluid flow. We mechanically stimulate single Scenedesmus dimorphus cells and understand how this affects their structural response. To accomplish this, we use atomic force microscopy (AFM) to image S. dimorphus while simultaneously capturing optical images of the cell response. This integrated approach allows us to map the AFM mechanical measurements to specific subcellular locations on the individual cells. Currently, we have the capability to perform force measurements with the AFM to determine cellular properties such as Young’s modulus of S. dimorphus. These findings are enabling us to understand mechanical properties of a single Scenedesmus dimorphus cell, which will empower us to map these responses to environmental stimulation and optimize their environmental benefits.
Why Microalgae?