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Engineered Algae Could Produce Nanocellulose

One type of ‘wonder material’, nanocellulose, could be produced inexpensively and abundantly by genetically engineered algae, according to reports from the annual American Chemical Society meeting.

Nanocellulose-based materials have a lot of potential applications, from biofuels to armor to wound dressings, and their great strength-to-weight ratio means that they can be made to be stiffer than Kevlar and stronger than steel.

Genes from the family of bacteria that produce vinegar and Kombucha tea are behind the research that could turn algae into “solar-powered factories” for producing nanocellulose, and researchers say they are at an advanced stage in their work.

“If we can complete the final steps, we will have accomplished one of the most important potential agricultural transformations ever. We will have plants that produce nanocellulose abundantly and inexpensively.

It can become the raw material for sustainable production of biofuels and many other products. While producing nanocellulose, the algae will absorb carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas linked to global warming. – R. Malcolm Brown, Jr., Ph.D.

Researchers are using an engineered form of Acetobacter xylinum, which can secrete nanocellulose directly into the culture medium, and have succeeded in using it to produce the long-chain, or polymer, form of the material, and the next step is getting engineering it to be able to produce a more complete form (a polymer with a crystalline structure).

According to Brown, these breakthroughs won’t automatically usher in a new wave of biofuels, as national energy policies and politics are more of a barrier to their adoption than the science behind them.

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