Sapphire Energy Moving Fast on Genetically Engineered Algae

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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.”

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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..