Transnational approaches to resolving biological bottlenecks in macroalgal biofuel production (SuBBSea)

Lead Research Organisation: Durham University
Department Name: Biosciences


The green macroalgae, or seaweeds, are one of the most common sights on beaches and shorelines around the UK, providing food and shelter for many marine animals. The most familiar of these green seaweeds are the Ulva species; the 'sea lettuces'. These are particularly important because they act as a link between the land and the seas; increased nutrient run-off from agricultural fertilisers, or from urban sewage treatment plants, can lead to higher nutrient levels in the rivers and seas that border farmlands and cities. These enriched waters, which can also occur naturally through the spring upwelling of nutrient-rich deeper sea waters, can, in turn, see extraordinarily rapid growth of the seaweeds that live in them; the so-called 'green tides' that can choke coastal waters worldwide and which are responsible for threatening the Olympic sailing regatta at Qingdao in 2008, covering beaches along the south coast of the UK in 2010, and fouling the Breton coast annually.

Our project aims to build on these astonishing growth rates by converting green seaweeds into fuel. We will start by using standard crop-breeding techniques (rather than genetic modification) to produce economically productive seaweed strains that can be grown safely and sustainably around the UK's coastline. Once they've been harvested, we will look at how to harness the natural processes by which seaweeds are broken down, extracting enzymes and microbes capable of converting seaweed biomass into the advanced biofuels that the UK economy will need in the years ahead.

Technical Summary

Seaweeds are strong candidates for sustainable 2nd generation biofuels. They can be cultivated at low cost, and grow more rapidly than terrestrial plants without competing for land or water resources. Additionally, as ecosystem engineers along both the UK and Indian coastlines, they provide a number of ecosystem services that can counter the effects of wave erosion and anthropogenic stress.
SuBBSea will address its overall ambition in three broad themes:

Theme 1. GWAS approaches to macroalgal strain improvement (UK: Belfast, Bangor; India: CSMCRI): Genetic modification of seaweeds for open-water cultivation is, at present, both unacceptable and impossible. Selective breeding of seaweeds, however, has never been tried and SuBBSea represents a first application of modern breeding techniques to macroalgae. Desirable traits (e.g. growth rates, polymer composition) will be scored and Genome-Wide Association Studies will correlate traits with RADseq markers, with novel crosses generating new lines that will be tested for optimal growth.

Theme 2. NGS-driven pre-processing enzyme identification (UK: IBERS; India: CEB): Natural processes of macroalgal biomass degradation (marine grazers, microbes) will be used to inform biorefinery pre-processing strategies for the separation and extraction of structural macroalgal components. Metagenomic and functional screens of marine microbes will identify seawater-tolerant enzymes that contribute to different stages of decomposition and drive nutrient flow in coastal areas.

Theme 3. Synthetic approaches to microbial platform construction (UK: Edinburgh, India: CEB): Microbial platforms will be developed to convert the full range of seaweed-derived carbohydrates into advanced (longer-chain) biofuels, transforming known and discovered polysaccharide lyases and oligomer transporters into seawater-tolerant microbes. Biorefinery principles will determine the balance between biofuel and high value product generation.

Planned Impact

As detailed in the Case for Support, SuBBSea will take a process view of the flow of biological material along seaweed biofuel generation pathways in the UK and India, developing: a) more productive seaweed lines for commercial and coastal management use, b) improved biocatalysts for seaweed biomass pre-processing and, c) improved biocatalysts for longer-chain biofuel generation. Accordingly, SuBBSea will be of particular benefit to the following groups:

I. Private sector - large companies (for Advanced Biofuels): The production of sustainable biofuels is obviously the subject of huge commercial investment and the green seaweeds are attracting increased interest as potential biofuel and biotechnology sources (e.g Statoil). Indian partners (ICT-CEB) already collaborate closely with IndianOil, and we will feed into this collaboration to identify synergies between bio- and thermo-chemical processing and conversion. Within the UK, partners at IBERS have strong links to the biorefinery and bioprocessing industry and further links with appropriate industrial stakeholders in the UK will be developed through the mid-term dissemination meeting in Belfast.

II. Private sector - SMEs and local enterprise (for Biotechology and low-grade biofuels): Although the green seaweeds grow abundantly in a diverse range of habitats and their mariculture as a human and animal food staple is common in Asia, their economic potential remains underexploited in UK waters. SuBBSea holds particular opportunities for SME involvement in improving low-grade, local bionergy generation (e.g. By improving pre-processing in AD) and the UK partners already have strong links with local mariculture and SMEs (e.g. B9, Deepdock Ltd, Green Biofuels Ireland, Irish Seaweeds) interested in scaling-up production plants for small-scale biofuel generation. Additionally, the green seaweeds are now attracting increased interest as potential biotechnology sources, with particular efforts being made to exploit their biofouling and bioadhesive ability, so Themes 1 and 3 of SuBBSea will be of immediate interest to biotechnology companies interested in the economic potential of algal secondary metabolites.

III. Policy makers and advisors, such as the Environment Agency, and its devolved counterparts (SEPA, NIEA): Ecosystem managers will benefit from SuBBSea's improved understanding of the ways in which seaweed cultivation may be made biosecure and, by relieving the pressures on agricultural land use, can help food security. The green seaweeds contain a number of bloom-forming ('green tides') and invasive species (a potential issue with the large-scale cultivation of any animal or crop; see Implications document); measures that are used as important indicators of estuarine quality by the EU Water Framework Directive and biosecurity by the Convention on Biological Diversity. The factors which determine whether or not particular green seaweed species will invade or bloom are thought to include sudden increases in the levels of nitrate run-off from agricultural fertilisers and sewage plants, but remain poorly understood because we do not know the extent to which seaweed behaviour is dependent on specific genetic haplotypes. The elucidation of this behaviour (= SuBBSea Theme 1) would bolster the UK's commitment to evidence-based science and agriculture policy, helping to decide how large-scale seaweed cultivation farms should be located and managed relative to onshore agriculture and industrial activity.


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Description As part of the culture work developed in this grant, we were able to publish the first genome sequence of a green seaweed species. We have now begun to use this resource to complete the analysis of the datasets generated (using two PhD student projects). This work is currently underway with collaborators in York and Ghent and we are moving towards being able to modify macro algae for increased bioenergy yields.
Exploitation Route As it currently is: by suggesting ways of studying and utilising harmful algal blooms of Sargassum in the Caribbean and Ulva in the Yellow Sea.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Energy,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism

Description The PI has been contacted by the Government of the Dominican Republic to help establish ways in which harmful algal blooms might be turned into biofuel. As a result, in part, of the PI's representations to Government agencies, planning and mitigation efforts have been established in the DR. In 2019-20, we began discussions with bioenergy companies in the UK to move some of this work forward. In particular, we have begun to look at conversion of algal biomass to biohydrogen, allowing for energy generation with carbon capture (as opposed to the more traditional conversion of biomass to carbon-containing fuels such as bioethanol).
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink,Energy,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism
Impact Types Economic

Description Sargassum in the Dominican Republic
Geographic Reach South America 
Policy Influence Type Implementation circular/rapid advice/letter to e.g. Ministry of Health
Description BBSRC DTP
Amount £90,000 (GBP)
Organisation Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2018 
End 10/2022
Description GCRF Studentship with Jammu, India
Amount £90,000 (GBP)
Organisation Durham University 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2019 
End 04/2022
Description IBCARB Summer studentship
Amount £2,000 (GBP)
Organisation Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 05/2016 
End 08/2016
Description NERC AB-SIG
Amount £10,000 (GBP)
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 08/2015 
End 02/2016
Title qPCR in Ulva mutabilis 
Description Using the genome database generated from work in these two grants, we have generated a range of primers for qPCR in Ulva mutabilis. We are currently using these to measure gene expression in these species. 
Type Of Material Technology assay or reagent 
Year Produced 2020 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact None yet 
Title Ulva mutabilis genome assembly 
Description This is the genome assembly for Ulva mutabilis. It is currently being annotated. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2016 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact We have established an international consortium to annotate the Ulva mutabilis genome. 
Description Jammu, India 
Organisation University of Jammu
Country India 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution We hosted Dr Bijender Kumar from Jammu, India. Dr Kumar came to the UK on a Durham-funded fellowship to learn about the use of macroalgal biomass for biofuel. A collaboration was established which is now ongoing; students in India are now generating further results based on our datasets.
Collaborator Contribution Jammu University has expertise in bioprocessing, and our Indian colleagues are looking at the use of ionic liquid solvents in biomass treatment.
Impact Paper underway!
Start Year 2016
Description SEA Consultants 
Organisation SEA Consultants
Country United States 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution SEAN Consultants are an aquaculture SME based in Blyth, Northumbria. We are working with them to establish commercial macroalgal cultures for food, feed and biofuel purposes. We provide expertise in macroalgal cultivation and analysis.
Collaborator Contribution Our partners provide commercial scale growth chambers, cover nutrient and consumable costs, and labour to grow macroalgal cultures at large scale for several months.
Impact Preliminary data as of 1 month ago
Start Year 2015
Description Sargassum in the Dominican Republic 
Organisation Universidad Iberoamericana
Country Dominican Republic 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution The biofuel work published as part of this grant (Trivedi et al.) was picked up by the Dominican Republic's Ambassador to the UK. The Dominican Republic suffers from annual inundations of Sargassum seaweed and the Ambassador invited me to Santo Domingo to discuss ways of converting this biomass into biofuel. I presented our work to a number of Government ministries and we have now started a GCRF-funded collaboration with UNIBE (University of Santo Domingo). We will be analyzing and preparing Sargassum for biofuel generation. We have now received ~£20k of funding to support this work from the GSTAR program.
Collaborator Contribution Our Dominican Republic partners are collecting and ensiling Sargassum.
Impact Presentations to several Government Agencies in the Dominican Republic and funding released accordingly to begin Sargassum collection.
Start Year 2018
Description BBC News interview 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact I gave an interview on the lunchtime national BBC News about the potential for biofuel in the UK in the light of climate change.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
Description BIS vsit 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact The Durham Energy Institute arranged a visit to BIS to discuss energy policy; I presented a report on macroalgal biofuel. We're following this up with a written report.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
Description EU algal biomass use talk in Cambridge 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact I gave a talk presenting possible uses of algal biomass to a EU working group looking at aquaculture; the audience was primarily SMEs and aquaculture companies.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
Description Great North Museum "Dippy on tour" exhibition 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact "Dippy" (the Diplodocus cast that used to stand in the main hall of the Natural History Museum) is touring a number of museums in the UK during 2019, one of which is the Great North Museum, Hancock, in Newcastle. Together with Newcastle University, I have been awarded a grant to prepare an exhibition on sustainable fuels (incl. biofuel) to support the main exhibit.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
Description Interview for national news 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact Interview with journalist from 'The Daily Telegraph', Feb 2018, to discuss the potential of biofuel in sustainable energy
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018