In this study, the effects of limited and excess nitrate on biomass, lipid production, and fatty acid profile in Messastrum gracile SE-MC4 were determined. The expression of fatty acid desaturase genes, namely stearoyl-ACP desaturase (SAD), omega-6 fatty acid desaturase (ω-6 FAD), omega-3 fatty acid desaturase isoform 1 (ω-3 FADi1), and omega-3 fatty acid desaturase isoform 2 (ω-3 FADi2) was also assessed. It was found that nitrate limitation generally increased the total oil, α-linolenic acid (C18:3n3) and total polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA) contents in M. gracile. The reduction of nitrate concentration from 1.76 to 0.11 mM increased the total oil content significantly from 32.5 to 41.85% (dry weight). Palmitic (C16:0) and oleic (C18:1) acids as the predominant fatty acids in this microalgae constituted between 82 and 87% of the total oil content and were relatively consistent throughout all nitrate concentrations tested. The expression of SAD, ω-6 FAD, and ω-3 FADi2 genes increased under nitrate limitation, especially at 0.11 mM nitrate. The ω-3 FADi1 demonstrated a binary up-regulation pattern of expression under both nitrate-deficient (0.11 mM) and -excess (3.55 mM) conditions. Thus, findings from this study suggested that limited or excess nitrate could be used as part of a cultivation strategy to increase oil and PUFA content following media optimisation and more efficient culture methodology. Data obtained from the expression of desaturase genes would provide valuable insights into their roles under excess and limited nitrate conditions in M. gracile, potentially paving the way for future genetic modifications.
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