The genetic, physiological and metabolic diversity of microalgae has driven fundamental research into photosynthesis, flagella structure and function, and eukaryotic evolution. Within the last 10 years these organisms have also been investigated as potential biotechnology platforms, for example to produce high value compounds such as long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids, pigments and antioxidants, and for biodiesel precursors, in particular triacylglycerols (TAGs). Transformation protocols, molecular tools and genome sequences are available for a number of model species including the green alga Chlamydomonas reinhardtii and the diatom Phaeodactylum tricornutum, although for both species there are bottlenecks to be overcome to allow rapid and predictable genetic manipulation. One approach to do this would be to apply the principles of synthetic biology to microalgae, namely the cycle of Design-Build-Test, which requires more robust, predictable and high throughput methods. In this mini-review we highlight recent progress in the areas of improving transgene expression, genome editing, identification and design of standard genetic elements (parts), and the use of microfluidics to increase throughput. We suggest that combining these approaches will provide the means to establish algal synthetic biology, and that application of standard parts and workflows will avoid parallel development and capitalize on lessons learned from other systems.

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