Synthetic Genomics may soon produce Biofuel from Genetically Engineered Algae

By Jonathan Williams

I read an article yesterday that said Synthetic Genomics may be producing biofuel from genetically engineered algae fairly soon.

As a result, the first commercialization project that Synthetic Genomics undertakes with a major corporate partner may well involve algae that have been genetically engineered to produce biofuels. Synthetic Genomics’ team already has genetically optimized an algae species so that almost half of the organism’s mass consists of lipids, a broad group of naturally occurring molecules that include fats, waxes, sterols and other energy storage compounds. Now the team is enhancing the organism further to make even more lipids. Such algae would serve as a biofuel feedstock.


Venter has described “the new algae” as a kind of biochemical factory. In his Joint Genome Institute keynote speech in March, Venter said “the new algae” is something that “secretes whatever lipid size we want to engineer. This changes algae from what everybody’s been looking at as a farming problem into a manufacturing problem. So we are trying to get algae to go into a continuous production mode, pumping up these lipids, that come out in a pure form.”


Two years ago, Synthetic Genomics struck a long-term research and development deal with BP, the global energy conglomerate previously known as British Petroleum to develop cleaner energy production. BP has also been a strategic investor in Synthetic Genomics—even though Venter has stated that he wants the company to replace the petrochemical industry in ten years.


Many aspects of Venter’s algae project seem fanciful. He has described a future where people produce their own biofuel in their backyards, a self-sufficiency scenario he sees as a major source of future fuel production. He envisions possibly millions of “algae micro refineries,” in neighborhoods throughout the United States and beyond. Genetically engineered algae needs sunlight and carbon dioxide, and then secretes a liquid that “can basically be used right away as biodiesel,” according to Venter. The only hardware needed would be stuff like sinks, filters, barrels and pipes.

There is a lot of information in those few paragraphs. Other than the genetically engineering algae part, notice that Synthetic Genomics is also partnering with British Petroleum, a heavy hitter with deep pockets to help finance the still important research and development phase.


Additionally, the goal of Synthetic Genomics is to ultimately have millions of “algae micro refineries” around the country to process the algae that individual families actually grow. This, at its very essence, would be the ultimate form of energy independence where families will have the ability to grow their own fuel. Pretty cool idea.

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