Sapphire Energy Moving Fast on Genetically Engineered Algae

After reading Andy Pollack’s reportage on biotechnology for years in the New York Times, I finally got a chance to meet him a couple of weeks ago in San Diego, at a briefing to update reporters and VIPs on the $300-million partnership that Synthetic Genomics and ExxonMobil formed to develop algae biofuels.

Today Pollack published an overview on algal biofuels that features two San Diego algae biofuels startups—Synthetic Genomics and Sapphire Energy—and mentions the concerns raised in some quarters about growing genetically engineered algae in open ponds. The concerns about genetically engineered algae are similar in nature to the concerns raised about growing any genetically modified organism (GMO) in an open environment.

While genetically modified crops are grown throughout the United States, many environmental groups—particularly in Europe—remain opposed to agricultural production of genetically engineered plants. In the case of genetically engineered algae, Synthetic Genomics’ founding CEO J. Craig Venter says in the Times article that “suicide genes” could be inserted that would kill the algae if they escaped from the lab or fuel production facility.

Algae Flask Sapphire EnergyBut the Times article left me with a sinking feeling that I had gotten some important information wrong in a story I posted last October, “Two Things I Learned During My Tour of Sapphire Energy.”

One of the things I learned—or thought I learned—last year was that San Diego-based Sapphire Energy wasn’t genetically engineering its algae. The algal biofuels startup, which has funding from Bill Gates, Arch Venture Partners, and others, was using high-throughput screening to test thousands of different species of algae daily—and thereby identify which species are ideally suited for producing natural oils that can be used to make gasoline and other fuels.

In an e-mail to Sapphire spokesman Tim Zenk, I said I wanted to set the record straight, and I felt like my headline should have said, “Two Things I Learned During My Tour of Sapphire—One of Which is Wrong…”

But in his reply, Zenk assures me that … Next Page »

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Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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  • I’m not quite sure if growing GM Algae in open ponds will be allowed by the government soon (even in the US). So there might be a need for closed systems designed to meet the requirements for standards in working with GMO (very expensive!). This might ruin any business case even when working with highly productive algae..