August 5, 2009

Algae: From Biotech to Frankenfuels?

Algae, say scientists and industrial titans alike, could jumpstart a viable biofuels industry because it reproduces quickly and can be turned into fuel without taking food from the world’s plate.

A high-yield creation (AP)

But when Exxon Mobil picked biotechnology rock star J. Craig Venter and his Synthetic Genomics as a partner, the message was clear: the Holy Grail of biofuel feedstock needs some genetic tweaking before it can be produced en masse. The whole point of the joint venture is to marry Mr. Venter’s genetic engineering mastery to Exxon’s old-energy expertise, to create algae that churn out fuel—a biotech refinery.

Others–such as Bay Area-based Amyris Biotechnologies, Inc. and Seattle-based Targeted Growth–are also turning to biotech as a way to either create living factories or to spur feedstock growth.

Targeted Growth’s Chief Executive Tom Todaro, whose company has altered cyanobacteria–a species of algae–to make it grow bigger and faster than in nature, says there’s no other choice. “The things we’re asking the algae to do are not things that nature has evolved it to do,” he says.

Both biotech and energy are knowledge-intensive, high-stakes industrial sectors, accustomed to investing billions of dollars in what could be a dry hole or the cure for cancer. So their marriage to solve one of the world’s most challenging–and potentially profitable–problems seems only natural.

But their offspring of genetically-modified critters may not. Could algae, humble pond scum, evolve into Frankenfuel – the Terror from the Deep?

Genetically-modified organisms, although controversial in some regions, have been part of our diet for years. Todaro says that their use for industrial purposes–such as making fuel–should be even less of an issue. These organisms would live in a contained environment.

But what if fast-growing, fuel-churning algae escape to take over every pond in the world? Todaro says that that type of contamination can be avoided: Algae, for example, can be tweaked to die off quickly if not given a specific nutrient.

But didn’t the mad scientists of Jurassic Park engineer lysine deficiency in dinosaurs to keep them from escaping? It didn’t work in the book. “We’re not making dinosaurs,” Todaro said.

Beyond irresistible sci-fi doomsday scenarios, the biotech question raises a lot of new issues about biofuel feedstock–not the least of which is cost. Not only is biotech an expensive endeavor, but keeping organisms enclosed, as opposed to living in open ponds, could significantly hamper the economics of the business, unless their yield is extraordinarily higher than that of natural creatures.


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