A study conducted by the University of Bonn, Germany, has shown that cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, can produce oil.
Until now, it was believed that the ability to produce oil was only reserved for plants. The production of oil from water, carbon dioxide and light is something that is essentially common to all plants.
“We have now shown for the first time that cyanobacteria can do the same…This was a complete surprise, not only to us.” explains biologist Professor Dr Peter Dörmann from the Institute of Molecular Physiology and Biotechnology of Plants (IMBIO) at the University of Bonn.
This discovery has come as a surprise to the scientific community due to cyanobacteria being a bacterium, despite being given the name ‘blue-green algae’. cyanobacteria differ considerably from plants in many respects: Cyanobacteria are closer related to the intestinal bacterium E. coli than to an olive tree. “There are indeed ancient reports in the literature that cyanobacteria can contain oil…But these have never been verified,” says Dörmann.
Why can cyanobacteria produce oil?
Many scientists has suggested that chloroplasts originally evolved from cyanobacteria. This is theory has stemmed from the fact that, unlike all other groups of bacteria, cyanobacteria also master the photosynthesis typical of plants, with the release of oxygen. According to this theory, more than a billion years ago, a primordial plant cell “engulfed” a cyanobacterium. The bacterium then lived on in the cell and supplied it with photosynthesis products. “If this endosymbiont hypothesis is correct, then the oil synthesis enzyme of the chloroplasts might originally come from cyanobacteria,” explains Dörmann.
“Similar experiments are already underway with green algae…However, these are more difficult to maintain; moreover, they cannot be easily biotechnologically optimised to achieve the highest possible oil production rate…It is nevertheless quite possible that other species are considerably more productive…It is therefore certainly possible that the oil yield could be significantly increased again with biotechnological means,” explains Dörmann.