Sapphire Energy & Institute for Systems Biology Partner on Biofuels

11/1/12Follow @bvbigelow

San Diego’s Sapphire Energy and Seattle’s Institute for Systems Biology (ISB) have established a strategic partnership that is intended to significantly expand and diversify the genetic resources that Sapphire needs to commercialize algae-based biofuels. Financial terms of the collaboration were not disclosed.

In the five years since it was founded, Sapphire Energy has demonstrated how genetically engineered algae can be cultivated, harvested, and processed to extract a “green crude” that is equivalent to petroleum-based crude oil. The company also showed how its green crude could be “dropped in” to a typical refinery and processed to make gasoline, Naptha, diesel, and jet fuel. Sapphire even participated in the first flights of commercial airliners to be powered by algae-based fuel. That was in 2008.

This summer, just over four years later, Sapphire Energy began operating the first phase of its “Green Crude Farm” near Columbus, NM, a 300-acre commercial algae production site also known as the Algal Bio-Refinery. Sapphire says site development will be completed in two years, and the farm is expected to produce about 100 barrels of green crude a day. The company also operates a 22-acre R&D facility in Las Cruces, NM, so laboratory breakthroughs can be swiftly applied in the field.

Yet the company is still seeking more.

In a phone interview last night, Sapphire spokesman Tim Zenk says the company turned to Seattle’s renowned Institute for Systems Biology to help accelerate the development of new algal strains, and to expand the diversity, robustness, and yield of its algal “crop.”

Genomics pioneer Leroy Hood co-founded the nonprofit ISB in 2000 to take a multi-disciplinary, systems biology approach to biomedical research. The institute also has served as a showcase for what Hood calls “P4 Medicine,” healthcare that is predictive, preventive, personalized and participatory.

As a world leader in systems biology, the ISB has the ability to combine massive amounts of different kinds of data and to build detailed genetic models of complex processes, such as algal production of crude oil. Such models can then used by Sapphire to predict how algae would respond to changes in nutrients, water quality, temperature, and other environmental conditions.

In a statement released today, ISB’s Hood says, “We hope to reverse engineer the gene networks in algae and create strategies that will significantly improve the yield of green oil and crop protection and reduce significantly the time to market.”

Sapphire’s chief science officer, Alex Aravanis, also is quoted as saying, “By working with ISB to apply their systems biology approach, we’re able to more rapidly identify genes and regulatory pathways that can increase yield and move us toward our goal of making Green Crude a market-viable, crude oil alternative.”

Sapphire’s Zenk explained that while the company is more focused on the immediate commercialization of algae-based biofuels, “we need somebody looking ahead to the next generation.

“We’re not just throwing some stuff at them to do,” Zenk added. “We’re actually integrating some [scientific] teams.”

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

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