Date of Award:


Document Type:


Degree Name:

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Plants, Soils, and Climate

Committee Chair(s)

Bruce Bugbee


Bruce Bugbee


Jeanette Norton


Lance Seefeldt


William Doucette


Ralph Whitesides


Microalgae are a rich, largely untapped source of lipids. Algae are underutilized, in part, because lipid formation generally is stimulated by stress, such as nutrient deficiency. Nutrient deficiencies reduce growth, resulting in a tradeoff between elevated cellular lipids and abundant cell division. This tradeoff is not well understood. We also have a poor understanding of the physiological drivers for this lipid formation. Here we report on three sets of research: 1) Assessment of species differences in growth and lipid content tradeoffs with high and low level nitrogen deficiency; 2) Investigation of physiological drivers of lipid formation, by mass balance accounting of cellular nitrogen with progressing deficiency; 3) Examination of the effects of sodium chloride and silicon on lipid production in a marine diatom. 1) Nitrogen deficiency typically had disproportionate effects on growth and lipid content, with profound differences among species. Optimally balancing the tradeoff required a wide range in the rate of nitrogen supply to species. Some species grew first and then accumulated lipids, while other species grew and accumulated lipids concurrently--a characteristic that increased lipid productivity. High lipid content generally resulted from a response to minimal stress. 2) Commonalities among species in cellular nitrogen at the initiation of lipid accumulation provided insight into the physiological drivers for lipid accumulation in nitrogen deficient algae. Total nitrogen uptake and retention differed widely among species, but the ratio of minimum retained nitrogen to nitrogen at the initiation of lipid accumulation was consistent among species at 0.5 ± 0.04. This suggests that lipid accumulation was signaled by a common magnitude of nitrogen deficiency. Among the cellular pools of nitrogen at the initiation of lipid accumulation, the concentration of RNA and the protein to RNA ratio were most similar among species with averages of 3.2 ± 0.26 g L-1 (8.2% variation) and 16 ± 1.5 (9.2% variation), respectively. This implicates critical levels of these parameters as potential signals initiating the accumulation of lipids. 3) In a marine diatom, low levels of either sodium chloride or silicon resulted in at least 50% increases in lipid content. The synergy of simultaneous, moderate sodium chloride and silicon stress resulted in lipid content up to 73%. There was a strong sodium chloride/silicon interaction in total and ash-free dry mass densities that arose because low sodium chloride was inhibitory to growth, but the inhibition was overcome with excessive silicon supply. This suggests that low sodium chloride may have affected metabolism of silicon.