New method enhances biofuel production


By Lynne Friedmann

Researchers at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego have developed a method to genetically engineer a key growth component in marine algae to enhance its biofuel production.

Until now, a significant roadblock in algal biofuel research has involved the production of lipid oils, the fat molecules that store energy that can be utilized for fuel. Starve algae and they produce the desired lipid oil, however, they don’t grow well. Give algae a robust diet and they produce carbohydrates instead of the desired lipids.

Working with microscopic algae known as diatoms, researchers were able to target and knock out a specific fat-reducing enzyme thus allowing the diatoms to increase lipid production without compromising growth. The method could be could be applied broadly to other algal species.

— Findings are reported in the

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

  1. News release at

‘Mini-Kidney’ structures generated

Diseases affecting the kidneys represent a major health issue worldwide because kidneys rarely recover function once they are damaged.

Now, a team led by scientists at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies has developed a novel research model by generating three-dimensional kidney structures from human stem cells. This opens new avenues for studying kidney development, studying kidney diseases and may lead to new therapies that target human kidney cells.

Previously, scientists had created precursors of kidney cells using stem cells but the Salk team is the first to coax human stem cells into forming three-dimensional cellular structures similar to those found in human kidneys.

— Findings are reported in the journal

Nature Cell Biology.

News release at

Next-generation toxicity screenings

A bicoastal group of scientists at Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute (Sanford-Burnham) was recently awarded a three-year grant from the U.S. Department of the Air Force to assess the potential toxicity of large collections of chemicals. The goal of the project is to provide an early and relevant assessment of potential toxicities in a rapid, cost-effective manner.

It is estimated that there are more than 100,000 new chemicals for which little to no risk assessment has been performed. While animal studies represent the foundation of toxicology, current methodologies, capacities, and budgets of the regulatory agencies tasked with toxicity testing are unable to meet the critical and growing need for testing.

Sanford-Burnham researchers have developed screening technology that relies on high-throughput, human cell-based assays to analyze processes in a cell when it is exposed to a certain chemical. These chemical screens use induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC) — stem cells that are genetically reprogrammed adult cells — to test potential toxins. In a second step, the scientists analyze the iPSC-derived cells to assess mitochondrial function and identify subsets that demonstrate a potential for toxic effects.

— More information at


Author’s Note:

This is my last column for the

La Jolla Light

  1. It’s been a professionally rewarding five-year run. I’ve decided to focus my freelance writing for national and online publications.

Thank you to former editor Kathy Day who first approached me with the idea for a column about the cutting-edge research taking place on Torrey Pines Mesa and current editor Susan DeMaggio who allowed me to expand my scope to feature articles and series based on science topics that just plain interested me.
I also extend thanks to the


readers and science newsmakers for their supportive comments, constructive suggestions and story tips over the years. And a shout out to the public information officers and science writers of the research institutions and technology companies located on Torrey Pines Mesa. They serve a vital role as liaison to the media and the public.—

Lynne Friedmann