Lipid production in Phaeodactylum tricornutum under simulated outdoor conditions

Microalgae are promising for the production of biofuels due to their ability to use sunlight as energy source with a high areal productivity, to be cultivated on non-arable land in brackish or salt water and to produce energy rich compounds like triacylglycerol (TAG). Although the potential of microalgae as production platform for biofuel production is clear, production costs are not yet competitive compared to fossil fuels and the net energy balance for production is often negative. It is therefore important to reduce production costs and to achieve a positive energy balance.

Project Aim

Microalgae produce low amounts of TAG under optimal growth conditions, but TAG content can increase up to 40% of the dry cell weight under lipid inducing conditions (e.g. nitrogen starvation). Unfortunately, high amounts of TAG are often impaired by a low yield of TAG on light (Hu et al, 2008; Breuer et al 2012). More insight in the cellular mechanisms for photosynthesis and TAG production in microalgae cultivated under lipid inducing conditions can improve overall lipid productivity in outdoor systems.

Although some work has been done on unravelling the biochemistry of lipid synthesis routes and subsequently optimizing lipid production in microalgae on lab scale, the knowledge on lipid production under outdoor conditions is still very limited. This project aims to better understand the lipid production under simulated outdoor conditions and translate this into a production process in which the lipid productivity in Phaeodactylum tricornutum is maximized, and the lipid profile is optimized for biofuel production.

The polymorphilic diatom P.tricornutum (left) and a schematic illustration of algal cellular metabolism (right).
The polymorphilic diatom P.tricornutum (left) and a schematic illustration of algal cellular metabolism (right).


Phaeodactylum tricornutum will be cultivated in flat panel photobioreactors under simulated outdoor conditions. The effect of varying environmental factors (e.g. light intensity and temperature) will be evaluated under lipid inducing cultivation conditions. Omics techniques (transcriptomics, metabolomics), in combination with metabolic modelling, will be used to gain more insight in complex cellular processes, such as the regulation of pathways for different types of lipids, under various cultivation conditions.

Thesis projects

Within this project there are various possibilities for doing a BSc or MSc thesis. Depending on your interest, there are thesis subjects available in the form of lab experiments and modelling. Following the course Microalgae Biotechnology (BPE-32803) and/or Metabolic Modelling and Pathway Analysis (BPE-30303) is preferred as prior knowledge.

If you are interested in doing a BSc or MSc thesis, feel free to contact me.


This project is part of FUEL4ME, and funded by the seventh framework programme (FP7).