Algae could help provide a whole new meaning to the phrase “going green.” The organisms have the potential to be used as a source of oil, UF graduate research assistant and doctoral student Elton Goncalves said. In fact, he said he is certain renewable energy is headed in that direction.

Goncalves, 27, recently found that oil accumulation in algae occurs within three hours of nitrogen being removed from the medium, according to a study published in the journal Planta. Scientists previously believed the timetable to be closer to two days.

Bala Rathinasabapathi, a UF horticultural professor who worked on the study, said the discovery was a small step in the algal-oil process.

There is still a paradox to overcome, Rathinasabapathi said, because when nitrogen is removed from the medium — stressing the algae cells — chloroplasts are destroyed. The chloroplast is a key element of photosynthesis. Without it, the algae begin to go dormant or die.

However, the removal of the nitrogen stimulates oil accumulation.

Therefore, Rathinasabapathi said, the problem is that scientists know how to get oil from the algae, but they don’t know how to do so without killing it.

This study is significant, Goncalves said, because scientists now know they have to study the cells three hours, not three days, after stressing the algae.

Seventy percent of the cell’s mass becomes oil when the alga is stressed. If scientists can learn which “switches” trigger the oil accumulation, Goncalves said, scientists can find a way to flip those switches and get oil without robbing the algae of nitrogen.

Algae have been used in the past to create biofuel, Rathinasabapathi said, but discovering this pathway would make the process easier, more productive and more economically feasible.

Ann Wilkie, a UF environmental microbiology associate professor, is also optimistic about the future of algae as a renewable resource.

“Algal biofuels offer great promise,” she said. “Anything that helps us understand the metabolism of the cell is certainly a step in the right direction.”

Although the process is currently in the early research and development stages, she said, the research field has made a lot of progress in regard to algae and oil accumulation.

A version of this story ran on page 5 on 9/16/2013 under the headline "UF scientists: Algae could be source of oil"