Researchers at the University of California San Diego and algae cultivation technology company Sapphire Energy have completed the first US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-sanctioned outdoor field trial for genetically engineered algae.

In the 50-day experiment, funded by the US Department of Energy, the scientists tested a strain of Acutodesmus dimorphus algae in outdoor ponds under real-world conditions, UC San Diego said in a 4 May statement.

The algae strain was modified with genes for fatty acid biosynthesis and green fluorescent protein expression and was cultivated in parallel with non-engineered algal strains.

The study concluded that the genetically modified strain could be cultivated while maintaining the engineered traits without negatively affecting native algae.

Both strains were tested in water samples taken from five California lakes, and the results showed “strikingly” similar levels of growth and that the genetic modification did not change the impact of the cultivated strains on native algae communities.

“If we are going to maintain our standard of living in the future, we’re going to need sustainable food and energy and ways of making those that do not disrupt the environment,” said the study’s co-author Jonathan Shurin, an ecologist in UC San Diego’s Division of Biological Sciences.

“This study showed the framework for how this type of testing can be done in the future. Our experiment was the first step towards an evidence-based evaluation of genetically engineered algae and their benefits and environmental risks,” he added.

Future testing would include additional gene types in experiments that run “several months” and would allow the researchers to evaluate influences from weather, seasonal shifts and other environmental factors, the university said.