Red is about to become the new green, if researchers from the University of Illinois are on the right track. They’ve developed a new super-efficient strain of yeast that can easily break down red seaweed into biofuel. The new development could help small island nations and other sea-bound regions grow biofuel crops without giving up scarce land resources that are needed to grow food. But it also opens up some challenges down the road as human use of the marine environment increases.
Biofuel from Red Seaweed
When it comes to extracting fuel from non-food biomass, seaweed has general advantages over land crops. The most obvious one is the relative absence of hard fibers that are difficult to break down into sugars. Marine biomass degrades much more easily than land crops, but there is still a catch. When red seaweed is broken down it yields both glucose andgalactose (a less “sweet” form of sugar), and until now it has been difficult to find an efficient fermentation process for galactose. The University of Illinois team identified three genes in a common microbe, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, that can be pumped up to increase galactose fermentation by 250 percent.
Biofuels Beyond Red Seaweed
If the new process proves commercially viable, that might open up a can of worms for the marine environment. Our oceans can ill afford a new stress, as fisheries are already overstretched and coral reefs around the world (a canary in the coal mine in terms of marine health) are suffering. However, if it turns out that growing seaweed for biofuel on a mass scale is not viable, the new yeast process could still yield benefits, for example as a johnny-on-the-spot, cost effective means of remediating algae blooms and other potentially devastating episodes of seaweed overgrowth.