Exxon and Synthetic Genomics Develop Technique Which Could Lead to the Commercialization of Algae-Based Biofuels

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For a number of years, biofuel developers have been hoping that a day would come where they could coax energy out of algae, and thanks to J. Craig Venter and Exxon Mobil Corp. (NYSE:$XOM), that day may finally be upon us. On Monday, at the 2017 BIO International Convention, Venter’s Synthetic Genomics Inc. and Exxon disclosed that they have developed a breakthrough technique which will help to authorize the commercialization of algae-based biofuels. Venter, who mapped the human genome back in the 1990’s and the Texas-based multinational oil and gas corporation, used state-of-the-art cell engineering to more than double the fatty lipids that are inside a strain of algae. If all goes as planned, this technique could be replicated in order to increase numbers on other species as well.

Venter, who is also the co-founder of Synthetic Genomics, believes that this technique is a turning point on the long and winding road that is making algae a renewable energy source. “Tackling the inner workings of algae cells has not been trivial,” said Venter, “Nobody’s really ever been there before; there’s no guideline to go by.” To learn more, the finding will be published in the Nature Biotechnology journal in July.

According to Venter, it has taken eight long years of dreary research to reach this point. Exxon Mobil first reported their $600 million partnership with Synthetic Genomics in 2009, and even then the Texas-based company had estimated that this partnership might generate algae-based biofuels within a decade. However, four years later, officials at Exxon Mobil revised their estimate and acknowledged that algae-based biofuels might be possible within a generation.

At the same time, Rex Tillerson, who is the current U.S Secretary of State, reported that producing strains that reproduce and generate a considerable amount of the raw material needed to supply a refinery might mean that the endeavor might not succeed for another 25 years, give or take.

Venture says that the effort to get to this point has “been a real slog”. This isn’t a surprise as the commercialization of this modified algae is still light years away, despite the new discovery. “It’s to the team’s credit — it’s to Exxon’s credit — that they believed the steps in the learning were actually leading some place,” said Venter, “And they have.”

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Exxon has not revealed how much the company has invested in the venture thus far, but one can only assume. According to Vijay Swarup, a vice president at ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Co., the partnership between Exxon and Synthetic Genomics is part of the company’s broad search for “more efficient ways to produce the energy and chemicals” that the globe needs and to “mitigate the impacts of climate change.”

Algae consumes CO2.

Exxon’s primary products – oil and natural gas – produce carbon dioxide emissions, while algae is a CO2 consumer.

Generally speaking, most renewable fuels are made from plant material, such as corn, corn waste and soybean oil. For a long time, algae has been thought to be more of a sustainable option, and unlike conventional biofuels, algae can grow in salt water and survive under difficult environmental conditions. Additionally, the oil that is enclosed in algae could possibly be processed in traditional refineries.

In their research, the Exxon and Synthetic Genomics team discovered a way to manage the expression of genes which control the amassing of lipids (fats) in the algae. Following this discovery, the team realized that it can then be used to double the strain’s lipid productivity and retain its ability to grow.

“To my knowledge, no other group has achieved this level of lipid productivity by modifying algae, and there’s no algae in production that has anything like this level,” Venter said in a phone interview. He added that this is their “first super-strong indication that there is a path to getting to where we need to go.”

Cells can be starved of nitrogen.

Once the team observed what happens to cells when they are starved of nitrogen (this usually produces more oil amassing), Exxon and Synthetic Genomics started to search for genetic regulators. While using the CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technique, the team of researchers winnowed a list of roughly 20 candidates to a single regulator (ZnCys). They were then able to adjust its expression.  

Senior director of genome engineering at Synthetic Genomics, Rob Brown, has compared their tactic to benching an algae athlete. “We basically take an athlete and make them sit on a couch and get fat,” said Brown. “That’s the switch – you grab this guy off the track and you put him on a couch and he turns into a couch potato. So everything he had in his body that was muscle, sinew, carbohydrates — we basically turn that into a butterball. That’s what we’re basically doing with this system.”

If this change did not come about, the majority of algae growing in this environment would generate roughly 10% to 15% oil. However, the Exxon and Synthetic Genomics partnership produced a strain with more than 40% oil.

As mentioned, commercialization of the modified algae is still decades away, but it’s a step in the right direction. Venter believes that this technique will lead to the sustainable energy he believes the human race needs to live longer, healthier lives. Additionally, Venter believes that this study is living proof that “persistence pays.” “You have to believe in what you’re doing and that where you’re headed really is the right direction,” Venter stated, “and sometimes, like this, it takes a long time to really prove it.” All in all, this is great news for anyone looking to start alternative energy investing.

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