Synthetic Genomics’ “Breakthrough” Algae Produces Twice as Much Oil

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additional research and testing is needed “to confirm that we’re proceeding down a path toward scale and commercial viability.”

Synthetic Genomics scientists said today that so far they have not seen any degradation in oil production in subsequent generations of genetically engineered N. gaditana. But there are many aspects to large-scale commercial production, and they still must ensure that the strain can still grow robustly and maximize its oil production outside a small test laboratory. The work still has years to go.

Yet there’s clearly an undercurrent of hope that the advance at Synthetic Genomics may spark more enthusiasm for algae-based biofuels—a corner of industrial biology that has struggled for years to overcome production cost issues that became particularly unfavorable as fracking became widespread, unlocking an abundance of natural gas and other fossil fuels deposits in North America. As the petroleum industry began to realize substantial cost savings and surpluses, the prospects for algae-based biofuels dimmed.

In a keynote talk in San Diego in 2012, for example, Venter bluntly declared that the prospects for algae-based biofuels were dead unless the federal government enacted regulations that better reflect the long-term costs of fossil fuels on the climate and environment. Following a 45-minute presentation at the annual Stem Cell Meeting on the Mesa, Venter was asked when advances in synthetic biology would begin to make an impact in energy.

“It doesn’t matter what the scientific breakthroughs are, there’s no way to beat oil,” Venter replied.

His pessimistic comments at the time were a sharp contrast to his ebullience three years earlier, when he announced that ExxonMobil planned to invest at least $600 million on the development of renewable, algae-based biofuels under a new partnership with Synthetic Genomics. While that partnership has continued, the work on algae-based biofuels at Synthetic Genomics appeared (from the outside at least) to become less of a priority. For one thing, Synthetic Genomics  seemed to shift its focus to other lines of revenue-generating business, such as the development of a work station that scientists could use to make customized, high-quality genes for laboratory research.

Asked at today’s press briefing about his comments in 2012, Venter said some kind carbon tax is still warranted to level the playing field for biofuels. A few minutes later, he added, “All the carbon tax in the world wouldn’t make any difference if biological alternatives weren’t available.”

Whether ExxonMobil has maintained its biofuels research funding at the level pledged in 2009 is unclear; it’s a topic that Rob Brown, Synthetic Genomics director of genome engineering, said the companies would not discuss.

Swarup acknowleged that there have been ebbs and flows in ExxonMobil’s partnership with Synthetic Genomics. “What hasn’t changed is our commitment to fundamentals, and to trying to come up with energy alternatives,” he said.

With today’s announcement, however, Venter’s renowned self-confidence is again in full flower. “The SGI-ExxonMobil science teams have made significant advances over the last several years in efforts to optimize lipid production in algae,” he says in a statement. “This important publication today is evidence of this work, and we remain convinced that synthetic biology holds crucial answers to unlocking the potential of algae as a renewable energy source.”

Algae in flasks at Synthetic Genomics lab (Synthetic Genomics photo used with permission)

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