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Fill 'er up -- with algae? If Richard Sayre has his way, you will

Richard Sayre
Courtesy of the Danforth Plant Science Center

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: September 12, 2008 - Richard Sayre always wanted to be a scientist.

"I was a nerdy little kid," he says laughing and recalling an early foray into renewable energy production. In high school, he and his father built a device they hoped would generate an electrical current when heated, almost like a solar-powered battery. For the first test run, they put it in an oven, rigged up a way to measure current, and flipped the switch.

"We were both sitting there waiting for this current to flow," Sayre remembers, "And all of a sudden BOOM! It blew up!"

Fortunately, they had taken the oven outside.

That was the end of that experiment, but only the beginning of Sayre's scientific career. Today, he is the newly appointed director of the Enterprise Rent-A-Car Institute for Renewable Fuels at the Danforth Plant Science Center as well as the principal investigator for a Grand Challenge project on improving the nutritional value of cassava, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

No longer blowing up ovens in his backyard, he has built a career using science to try to solve some of humanity's great problems, among these, no less than renewable energy and world hunger. That, along with generating new knowledge, is what keeps him going.

"The greatest thing about science is discovery," said Sayre. "And if you like change, this is the thing to be involved in."

Sayre's path to St. Louis was indeed filled with change, taking him across the country from California State University at Humboldt, where he got a degree in biology, to the University of Iowa for his Ph.D. After that he spent time as a post-doctoral researcher at Florida State, the University of Kentucky and Harvard. He finally settled at Ohio State University as a professor in the Department of Plant Cellular and Molecular Biology doing great things with pond scum and root vegetables.

Green Fuel

Oil production from algae is a re-emerging topic in biofuels research. It's not brand-new technology, Sayre explains, but with rising oil prices, algae-based fuels make economic sense again. Unlike corn-based ethanol, oil from algae does not compete with the food supply. It does not have a growing season. If an entire algae crop is lost, it can be restarted quickly. Algae perform photosynthesis. So, these green oil-factories can harvest sunlight and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and offset their own oil's carbon emissions. Plus, algae grows almost anywhere.

"There's a pond in front of the building," Sayre joked about claiming the Danforth Center's ornamental fountain for his own purposes at a biofuels discussion late last month. Joking aside, he makes the point that algae-based biofuel can be produced on marginal lands and with fresh or salt water, leaving fertile soil for food crops.

Sayre also emphasizes the strategic importance of energy independence and points out that one of the biggest investors in biofuel research is the U.S. Department of Defense, the world's largest consumer of fuel.

"The Department of Defense will tell you there are lots of great technologies for producing oil from algae, but nobody's put the whole package together yet," Sayre said. "If you brought the existing technologies together, they firmly believe you could get a dollar a gallon for oil from algae. So we're part of that equation, developing some of those technologies."

Oil from algae is not without drawbacks of course. Most techniques used to harvest oil from algae destroy the algae itself, requiring new algae crops to be grown and using a lot of water. It is not an ideal system in dry climates. Sayre hopes to keep the algae intact and reduce water-use by "milking" the oil out. Sayre's research group has found that certain biocompatible solvents do not destroy the membranes that hold the algae together, but do remove the oil that can be used for fuel.

"We like to call it 'milking' because we're taking out the product but not killing the organism in the process," Sayre said. It works in the lab. The next step is to scale it up to industrial size with a pilot plant that is scheduled to test the technology within the next two years.

The Angel Crop

In keeping with the Danforth Center's stated global vision -- to improve the human condition through plant science -- Sayre's research is not limited to biofuels. The other half of his team works on cassava, trying to improve the nutritional value of this crop, which is a staple food in Africa and other parts of the developing world.

"Cassava is like bread," said Martin Fregene, product development manager for the BioCassava Plus project at the Danforth Center and a longtime colleague of Sayre. Originally from Nigeria, Fregene has seen firsthand the importance of cassava in Africa. "It has become like the wheat of the Western world or the rice of China," he said. It is a great source of carbohydrates. Even better, "cassava tolerates drought in a way that no other crop does. It needs very little hands-on management. It's one of those crops sent from heaven, an angel crop."

But this heavenly crop has a darker side. It lacks nutrients, the vitamins, minerals and proteins necessary for a complete diet. And unlike other staples, cassava contains compounds that produce cyanide. When processed correctly, these dangerous compounds are removed; but at times of starvation, cassava is rushed to the people. Long term exposure to low levels of cyanide along with poor nutrition is a terrible combination, especially for children.

The goal of Sayre's research team is to genetically engineer varieties of cassava with both higher nutritional value and fewer cyanide-producing compounds. Having already engineered cassava varieties that improve the plant's deficiencies individually, the next step is to combine them into one, making sure to retain cassava's hardy, drought-resistant traits and, not least, its taste -- no small task.

Sayre's colleagues speak highly of his ability to connect basic science to solving global problems. "Finding out what plants do and how they do it is tough in itself," Fregene said, "But applying that knowledge to day-to-day living is rocket science."

Teaching the Next Generation

For Sayre, perhaps as important as research is teaching young people about science and mentoring young scientists. He taught biology for non-majors at Ohio State. "To capture the interest of 400 non-science majors is a real challenge," he said. But he tried to do it with skits, music, case studies and guest speakers, rather than textbook-style learning.

Not shying away from controversial issues, the class discussed evolution, the environment and genetically modified organisms, among other topics. According to Sayre, the way to reach students is to engage them in the process, make science relevant, and teach them to use science to take a position on controversial topics.

Sayre recalled discussing environmental protection and pointing out that important environmental legislation, like the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, was passed during the Nixon Administration. "It's not so much a political issue because both Democrats and Republicans think the environment is important to save," said Sayre, "But I wanted to point out why it's important to save." He called it a popular class, recalling student evaluations.

"One (anonymous) comment I remember well was from a student who said I had converted him or her into a liberal," he laughed, recalling the memory. "What was refreshing about that comment is that you can still have an impact on students, not necessarily that it's important to change their politics, but that you can open them up to new ways of looking at things."

Speaking highly of Sayre's one-on-one teaching, Terry Gustafson, professor of chemistry at Ohio State University and a longtime colleague of Sayre, called him an incredible mentor for young scientists.

"When you sit down to have a conversation with him, it's like drinking in new ideas from a fire hose," said Gustafson. "He's a constant source of communicating new ways to think."

Julia Evangelou Strait is a freelance science writer based in St. Louis. She has a master's degree in biomedical engineering and works in hospital epidemiology for BJC HealthCare.

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