Targeted Growth Tinkers with Genes to See If Algae Can Fulfill Biofuel Potential

8/14/09Follow @xconomy

[[Correction 10:40 am Pacific: Targeted Growth's camelina program currently uses traditional breeding, not genetic engineering techniques like those for its algae biofuel program.]]

Targeted Growth‘s business depends today in large part on its ability to breed new camelina seeds as a source for biofuel. But the Seattle-based biotech/cleantech company also has its eyes on a more distant goal. It hopes to translate some of its genetic engineering skill into a far more efficient vehicle for making renewable biofuels—algae.

Even in a recession, the algae biofuel business sounds bubbly, as dozens of companies are competing for investors’ attention. Targeted Growth is no exception, having declared in a press release last month that it achieved a “breakthrough” in genetic modification of algae that would help make algae-based biofuels compete, once and for all, with petroleum on price. I wanted to dig beneath the headline, so I called up the general manager of Targeted Growth’s bio-based materials group, Margaret McCormick.

Algae has long captivated the imagination of scientists looking for a cheap source of renewable fuel. These fast-dividing microorganisms, known more glibly as “pond scum,” can churn out big quantities of biomass in a hurry. And algae doesn’t depend on a growing season like corn or soybeans, so it can pump out far higher yields of biofuel per acre. It can be grown even more efficiently inside closed bioreactors with artificial light, so it may not have to compete for land with food crops. Many big-name investors have flocked to this corner of the biofuel industry, including Bill Gates and Arch Venture Partners, with their favorite candidate, San Diego-based Sapphire Energy.

So algae gets people excited, and generates headlines, but McCormick really wasn’t trying to pull the wool over my eyes about where things stand with Targeted Growth’s algae biofuel work. “This is just a start for us,” she says.

Targeted Growth, regular readers will recall, has its roots in basic research into how genes play a role in making tumor cells flip into fast-growing, rapidly-dividing mode—work that has its origins at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. This knowledge can be harnessed in a different way if you actually want to accelerate growth, like with almost any biological organism—including algae.

So what did Targeted Growth actually accomplish that was so groundbreaking? It used genetic engineering techniques to create a modified strain … Next Page »

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