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II The use of microalgae for production purposes

The need and risks of using transgenic microalgae for the production of food, feed, chemicals and fuels

Rene H. Wijffels

Wageningen University, Bioprocess Engineering, Netherlands

This chapter provides a brief overview of the targets of algal genetic modification followed by a short description of the Netherlands legislation concerning genetically modified organisms, an overview of what is already known about the risks related to production systems of (GM-) algae, and the potential risks of GM-algae for human health and the environment.1

1 This chapter is based on a study commissioned by the Netherlands Advisory Commission for Genetis Modification (COGEM), performed by Technopolis (2012).

Importance of transgenic microalgae

Microalgae may be used for the sustainable production of various commodities and products, such as feedstock and biofuels. Microalgae can be cultivated on seawater, using residual nutrients (carbon dioxide [CO2], nitrogen [N], phosphorus [P]), and produce valuable co-products, e.g. lipids and proteins. Microalgae can be grown very efficiently. As an example, the total need for all transport fuels in Europe can be covered by microalgae cultivated on the surface area of Portugal. Four hundred million tons of protein would be produced as by-product, which is about 40 times the amount of soy protein imported into Europe. The EU FP7 programme1 has funded a large number of research programmes aimed at further development of the use of (micro-) algae for various sustainable purposes.

There is a clear need for genetic improvement of the strains of microalgae that are currently being used, to create the “ideal micro-alga” (Figure 4.1). Features that could be improved include high biomass productivity, in particular of required molecules, such as proteins, saturated neutral lipids and unsaturated fatty acids, possibilities to grow under selective conditions, ease of harvesting and possibilities to use mild extraction conditions.

Figure 4.1. Ideal microalga

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