[Updated 6/19/17 1:17 pm. See below.] The San Diego biotech company Synthetic Genomics and supermajor ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM) said today they have successfully inserted a gene in a particular strain of algae that more than doubled its oil content without slowing down the algae’s rate of growth.
The two companies described the work in a statement as a “breakthrough in algae biofuel research.”
The research represents a significant step toward creating an algal strain that could produce green bio-crude oil at commercial scale, officials with both companies said at a press conference this morning, the first day of the Bio International Convention in San Diego. Scientists have been hindered over the past decade in developing algae that is both high in oil content and grows quickly, which are both key to the development of scalable and cost-efficient biofuel production.
[Updated with new details] At this morning’s press conference, officials said the advance represents the most significant scientific achievement since 2009, when Synthetic Genomics began working under a partnership with ExxonMobil to advance algae-based biofuels. “It has taken eight years to get to this breakthrough point,” said J. Craig Venter, the genome pioneer who co-founded Synthetic Genomics and serves as its chairman and co-chief scientific officer.
While algae-based biofuels represents a cleaner alternative to fossil fuels, some aspects of the work raise delicate political issues. At one point during the news conference, for example, Venter declared, “With a president pushing coal and denying climate change, I would say the need for this type of renewable biofuel is greater than ever.”
As the world’s largest publicly traded international oil and gas company, ExxonMobile spent decades opposing regulations intended to curtail fossil-fuel emissions and was a leading climate change denier. But that position began to change in 2014, when the company released a report that publicly acknowledged climate change risk for the first time.
At today’s media briefing, Vijay Swarup, an ExxonMobil vice president for research and development, emphasized that “our job in the research community is to come up with options” to help mitigate growing pressures on population growth, the environment, and economy. When questioned about biofuels as an alternative to electric vehicles, Swarup said, “We need all of these solutions. But when you’re thinking about transportation, and trucks and airplanes in particular, you need an energy density that you don’t necessarily need in a car or passenger vehicle.”
(The advance apparently was intriguing enough to draw Darren Woods, ExxonMobil chairman and CEO, to Synthetic Genomics’ La Jolla laboratory earlier this year. In a photo (above) provided by Synthetic Genomics, Woods (left) is touring the lab with Synthetic Genomics CEO Oliver Fetzer.
Results of the research also were published online today in Nature Biotechnology by lead authors Imad Ajjawi and Eric Moellering and a team of scientists at the Synthetic Genomics laboratory in La Jolla. The team focused their research on Nannochloropsis gaditana, an algal strain known for its abundant production of lipids, naturally occurring oils, fats, and other types of organic molecules that are a source of stored energy and a component of cell membranes.
In the paper, scientists report that previous efforts to genetically engineer N. gaditana to grow fast while over-producing lipids at the same time “met with little success.” By using advanced cell engineering technology, however, the team essentially tricked the algae into thinking it is going into stasis, a dormant state that requires heightened oil reserves. By turning on this “genetic switch,” the scientists pushed the algae to increase its oil production from 20 percent to more than 40 percent of cellular content without impeding growth.
In today’s statement, ExxonMobil’s Swarup cautions that … Next Page »