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.
But 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 the story I wrote nine months ago wasn’t wrong—but Sapphire Energy has moved extremely quickly since then in terms of integrating genetic engineering with its algal technology development program.
“The techniques used from 2007-2009 were focused on building a baseline technology and tool kit to turn algae into a production scale energy crop,” Zenk says. “The development of the tool kit did not require we use genetic engineering [although] the tool kit enables the use of GE in the future. The first plants developed from this process will be used in the Integrated Algal Biorefinery supported by the USDA loan and USDOE grant. They will not be genetically engineered.
“Fast forward to today, almost a year later since your article, [and] we are in the very early stages of developing technologies using advanced molecular techniques in our laboratory. The pace of the research in this area is accelerating and the developments we have achieved over the last 10 months [are] very exciting,” Zenk says.
“The best way for you to think about our research timeline (see slide) is to look at how corn improvements were made from 1860-1975,” Zenk says. “No improvements were made from the 1860s until the 1950s. From about the 1950s to 70s agriculture started to make improvements as our understanding of biology improved. The agriculture biology industry started using traditional breeding methods to make these improvements, just as Sapphire has done and continues to do with algae. We call it the pre-molecular science era.
“Then after 1975, the agricultural biotechnology industry started to understand and use more advanced [genetic engineering] techniques, which resulted in the industry making significant improvements to corn beginning in the late 70′s.”
In the development of algae-based fuels, Zenk says, “We are still in the pre-molecular era, but over then next decade we will integrate our understanding of molecular science and synthetic biology into our research and development programs to build a production agriculture quality energy crop.”