A better understanding of how algae can be used to make biofuels is the aim of a new joint project between UC Davis and the University of Tokyo, Japan. It is one of four new grants, jointly funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation and the Japan Science and Technology Agency, to develop environment-friendly fuels and reduce pesticide use.

The four grants, totaling $12 million (960 million Yen), will be divided between the Japanese and U.S. laboratories. UC Davis’ share will be about $1.5 million over three years, with the possibility of renewal for another two years.

“These grants and this mutually beneficial partnership between UC Davis and the University of Tokyo will drive biofuel innovation for years to come,” said Congressman Mike Thompson (D-Calif.). “Biofuels are not only good for our environment, they also reduce our dependency on foreign oil and help our economy by spurring green job creation.”

All four projects are based on metabolomics, an approach that uses high-tech analysis to understand all the chemicals involved in a living cell’s metabolism.

“This is a great example of international collaboration that will use state-of-the-art analytical and computational approaches to dissect metabolic networks and address bioenergy — a major priority for campus,” said Richard Michelmore, professor of plant sciences and director of the UC Davis Genome Center.

“We want to understand all the metabolic pathways, which are used under which conditions, and understand the traffic through the cell,” said Oliver Fiehn, professor at the UC Davis Genome Center and Department of Molecular and Cell Biology, who will lead the UC Davis project with Masanori Arita of the University of Tokyo.

Currently, scientists can identify only a small fraction of the 10,000 to 15,000 chemical metabolites that exist in any given plant. The ability to identify and characterize these compounds could lead to entirely new and potentially breakthrough approaches for increasing biofuel production and reducing pesticide use.

Many compounds made by algae have potential for making biofuels. For example, glucose from the cell wall could be used to feed yeast to make ethanol, Fiehn said. Lipids or oils might have potential as biofuels in their own right.

The team will separate the complex mixtures of sugars, other carbohydrates, fats and oils made by the algae. Then they will develop software to identify the thousands of compounds and put them into a database run by Arita’s research group in Japan.

Other UC Davis investigators on the project are: Jean VanderGheynst, professor of biological and agricultural engineering; John Labavitch, professor of plant sciences; and Tobias Kind and William Wikoff, both project scientists at the UC Davis Genome Center.

Fiehn and Arita’s team will also collaborate with another grant funded under the joint program, led by Lloyd Sumner of the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation in Ardmore, Okla., and Kazuki Saito of the RIKEN Plant Science Center, Japan, studying biomass and oil production in plants.