Milking oil from algae? Craig Venter makes progress In Exxon-backed venture

NOTE: Craig Venter, the charismatic mad mega-scientist at the top of the synthetic biology hit parade, is producing mass quantities of genetically engineered algae in the Mojave Desert, in collaboration with Exxon, the former leader in climate denialism-now-turned-clean-tech-vanguardist. Venter says that since algae won’t do what we want naturally, we have to force it’s evolution; and that a good use of Nevada will be to cover half the state in outdoor GE algae ponds. We’d advise keeping an eye on this story to see how it shapes up, as efforts move ahead to replace hydro-carbon crude with green  synthetic micro-monsters. – the GJEP team

Cross-posted from Forbes

ExxonMobil and Craig Venter made a big splash back in 2009 when they announced a research alliance to explore the potential for milking oil out of algae. Exxon said that if Venter’s Synthetic Genomics Inc. managed to isolate an algae strain that produced enough oil, it would be willing to invest $600 million in commercializing the technology. Way to go green, Exxon!

Nearly two years into the research alliance Venter and his San Diego-based team are still hard at work on the algae quest. In his June 3 profile of Venter for the New York Times Magazine (yes, I’m often a few weeks behind on my reading), author Wil Hylton got a tantalizing look at Venter’s algae research, among many other projects.

The biggest algae-revelation of the piece was Venter’s insistence that no naturally occuring algae would prove fecund enough to produce oil on a scale that could generate profits for the likes of Exxon. So to find the right strain, he was going to have to make it himself.

“Algae didn’t evolve to produce tens of thousands of gallons of oil per acre,” Venter told Hylton. “So we have to force the evolution.”

Venter and his team have been studying many natural strains of algae with the goal of combining their best qualities into a Franken-algae.

“We’re collecting all this knowledge,” Venter said, “and then we have to put it all together and design something that hasn’t existed before.”

They’ve already started tinkering with the algae genome. Most algae turns a deep green. But that dark color blocks sunlight from reaching other parts of the plant, inhibiting growth. So Venter has engineered a strain that turns yellowish — enabling more light to pass to inner parts of the plant.

Venter is planning other tweaks, like one that might force the plant to secrete the oil it produces into the water so it could be readily harvested.

The scientist appears emboldened enough by his progress so far that he’s planning a large-scale growing operation. SGI has purchased an 81-acre site adjacent to California’s Salton Sea, which features 42 open ponds that can hold as much as 240,000 gallons. According to the Times story Venter is in discussions with a nearby geothermal power plant to capture and pipe in some of the naturally occuring carbon dioxide that vents up from underground — to use as algae food.

The vision, Venter said, was to someday have algae farms that are fed carbon dioxide captured from an oil refinery or power plant.

I was surprised that Hylton didn’t even mention ExxonMobil in his piece. A little Googling finds this article from last October by Steve LeVine, which suggests that a rift may have emerged between Venter and Exxon. LeVine quotes emails from Venter where the scientist states that terms of his alliance with Exxon does not entail the engineering of any all-new algae strains.

It would be hard to believe that Exxon would want to cut off support for Venter’s efforts just because he thinks the best solution to the algae dream is a little genome tweaking. Genomics developments are happening fast. His deal with Exxon was forged a year before Venter’s 2010 breakthrough creation of the world’s first wholly synthetic organism. And there’s been no announcement from Exxon or Venter of a break in the relationship.

According to an article from March in the South China Morning Post, Venter said in a speech that algae appears to be the only realistically sustainable way to make oil from plants. Corn, he said, produces about 18 gallons of fuel ethanol per acre per year, “but the goal of using algae is to get it to 10,000 to 15,000 gallons.” Exxon, in this presentation, says corn does more like 250 gallons per acre, but who’s counting?

The newspaper quoted him as saying: “If you wanted to eliminate all the transport fuels and do it based on corn oil, it would take a facility three times the size of the continent of the US. If we are going to do it based on algae, we will take a facility maybe half the size of Nevada or Arizona, which I’ve argued would be a really good use of Nevada,” he said.

I’ll check in with Exxon and see if they have any further updates they want to share. Meanwhile, what do you think? Can Venter pull it off and engineer an algae that can wean the world off crude oil?

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