The use of microalgae for biofuel production will be beneficial to society if we can produce biofuels at large scales with minimal mechanical energy input in the production process. Understanding micro-algal physiological responses under variable environmental conditions in bioreactors is essential for the optimization of biofuel production. We demonstrate that measuring micro-algal swimming speed provides information on culture health and total fatty acid accumulation. Three strains of Chlamydomonas reinhardtii were grown heterotrophically on acetate and subjected to various levels of nitrogen starvation. Other nutrient levels were explored to determine their effect on micro-algal kinetics. Swimming velocities were measured with two-dimensional micro-particle tracking velocimetry. The results show an inverse linear relationship between normalized total fatty acid mass versus swimming speed of micro-algal cells. Analysis of RNA sequencing data confirms these results by demonstrating that the biological processes of cell motion and the generation of energy precursors are significantly down-regulated. Experiments demonstrate that changes in nutrient concentration in the surrounding media also affect swimming speed. The findings have the potential for the in situ and indirect assessment of lipid content by measuring micro-algal swimming kinetics. Biotechnol. Bioeng. 2013; 110: 143–152. © 2012 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.