University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Press Release

UWM biologist awarded $2.8 million grant to investigate kelp for bioenergy

The project will create and maintain a kind of “seed stock” for breeding kelp with genetic traits best suited for mass production.

By - Oct 13th, 2017 01:39 pm
Giant Kelp. Photo by Robert Schwemmer/NOAA.

Giant Kelp. Photo by Robert Schwemmer/NOAA.

What agricultural product would allow bioenergy to claim a bigger piece in the U.S. green energy portfolio without competing with food crops for land and water?

The U.S. Department of Energy thinks seaweed – and specifically giant kelp – is a feedstock contender because it is the fastest growing organism on Earth.

UWM biologist Filipe Alberto recently was awarded $2.8 million from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) to create and maintain a kind of “seed stock” for breeding kelp with genetic traits best suited for mass production.

“The idea of this program is actually to develop off-shore sea-farming,” said Alberto, associate professor of biological sciences. “Even with all the advances in biotechnology to extract biofuel from brown algae, we still have to scale up production to use kelp as a sustainable biomass.”

By sequencing the genome and linking the plants’ observable traits to pathways in the DNA, Alberto and colleagues at UC-Santa Barbara, the University of Southern California and the J. Craig Center Institute will ultimately create selected giant kelp lines that are cost-effective and environmentally sound to farm.

Alberto and his lab members bring an expertise in kelp population genetics and natural history to the project.

“We have characterized a lot of genetic diversity of giant kelp,” he said. “The populations that we’re going to focus on in Southern California are actually the richest in terms of genetic diversity in the world.” 

That range of diversity will help the scientists identify traits that make the crop sustainable even in environments that are not optimal. Although the marine plant naturally grows rapidly, mass-cultivation introduces new challenges, Alberto said.

One problem is that off-shore waters contain fewer of the nutrients than exist in coastal areas. Can selective breeding result in, for example, varieties of kelp that can maintain or even increase their growth rate on less food?

From the sequenced genome, the lab members will make associations between each change in the genomic structure of the DNA and a particular trait. That information will form the basis for a predictive model of how robust a particular cross will be.

Lab members will start by producing individual male and female lines for mating, with the goal of producing about 500 different crosses. Then they will plant the offspring in a farm off the California coast and monitor their performance.

From the sequenced genome, the research team aims to find associations between each change in the genomic structure of the DNA and a particular trait. That information will form the basis for a predictive model of how robust a particular cross will be.

The project’s funding came from ARPA-E’s Macroalgae Research Inspiring Novel Energy Resources (MARINER) program.

About UWM
Recognized as one of the nation’s 115 top research universities, UW-Milwaukee provides a world-class education to 26,000 students from 89 countries on a budget of $667 million. Its 14 schools and colleges include Wisconsin’s only schools of architecture, freshwater sciences and public health, and it is a leading educator of nurses and teachers. UW-Milwaukee partners with leading companies to conduct joint research, offer student internships and serve as an economic engine for southeastern Wisconsin. The Princeton Review named UW-Milwaukee a 2018 “Best Midwestern” university based on overall academic excellence and student reviews, and the Sierra Club has recognized it as Wisconsin’s leading sustainable university.

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