An Australian Research Network
SEM of a coccolithophorid

The network links researchers from around Australia and key overseas groups studying microalgal physiology, biochemistry, molecular biology, ecology and photobioreactor design with emphasis on applied outcomes.

Australia has a significant microalgal industry, and is the leading producer of natural beta-carotene from two large plants operated in South Australia and WA by Cognis Ltd. Two smaller plants are under development in WA. Microalgae are also an essential requirement for successful aquaculture of shellfish, crustaceans and fish. New products and applications under development or proposed include the production of renewable fuels (hydrogen, algal oils), fine chemicals and bioactive molecules, wastewater treatment, soil and CO2 bioremediation. Microalgae are the major primary producers in aquatic ecosystems and an understanding and monitoring of microalgal population dynamics and photosynthesis is important for the conservation and sustainable management of these systems.

This network facilitates the development of new algal products and processes to overcome current barriers to successful commercialization through innovative interdisciplinary basic and applied research capitalizing on the inherent strategic advantages of Australia; e.g. the existing biodiversity, climate, a range of water sources including saline water, and an existing industry base. The further development of algal biotechnology requires extensive interdisciplinary collaboration. Examples of successful collaborations are the large effort in renewable fuels from microalgae coordinated by the US DOE and various projects funded by the European Commission etc. Successful outcomes require a wide range of research disciplines ranging from basic studies of photosynthetic processes, algal physiology and biochemistry, to microalgal ecology and to engineering for photobioreactor design and process control and will also require extensive international collaboration.

The network partners have expertise in the basic processes of photosynthesis especially the function of RuBisCo, carbon uptake and photosynthetic light reactions, the application of fluorescence to the study of photosynthetic processes and monitoring of the physiological state of microalgae, phytoplankton ecology, use of algae in wastewater and contaminated soil bioremediation, toxicology, hydrogen production, aquaculture, the isolation and culture of microalgae from laboratory to commercial scale, the chemistry and physiology of secondary metabolites, photobioreactor design and engineering, process control and economic evaluation of the processes. A major current limitation is lack of interaction between the basic biological research with the development of commercial scale systems from both biological and engineering aspects. Key needs are to enhance light utilization efficiency, photosynthetic carbon uptake, an understanding of secondary metabolism, photobioreactors with low turbulence and methods for rapid reliable monitoring of cultures for process control. The linking of phytoplankton ecologists with applied research will also provide important insights leading to improved productivity and reliability of laboratory cultures, whereas the monitoring methods such as PAM fluorometry developed will be important for phytoplankton ecology and for environmental management.

The network partners also have significant equipment and infrastructure resources (including the 3 principal Australian algal culture collections) that will be able to be shared to support the various projects to be undertaken. The network also links with the international and industry networks of the various partners.

 

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