Exxon and partner double algae oil output

Article by Adam Duckett

Development relied on fine-tuning a genetic switch for oil production

EXXONMOBIL and biotech pioneer Synthetic Genomics have announced a breakthrough in biofuels research after modifying algae to double its oil output without inhibiting growth.

Synthetic Genomics and ExxonMobil formed their US$600m partnership to genetically engineer algae in 2009. In a study published in the journal Nature Biotechnology, the team now reports that it has boosted oil production from 20% to more than 40% in the species Nannochloropsis gaditana.

Oil production was increased by identifying a genetic switch that can be fine-tuned to regulate the conversion of carbon to oil in the species but importantly it does not hinder growth.

This is an important advance, the team says, with slower growth being an adverse effect of previous efforts to modify algae to produce more oil.

Using algae to produce oil – for fuels and chemicals production – has a number of unique advantages, chiefly that they can grow in salt water and harsh environmental conditions, so limit the stress on food and freshwater supplies as seen with other forms of biofuels.

Vijay Swarup, vice president for research and development at ExxonMobil Research and Engineering, said that while the breakthrough is an important step, the technology remains many years away from commercialisation.

“Advancements as potentially important as this require significant time and effort, as is the case with any research and development project,” Swarup said. “Each phase of our algae research, or any other similar project in the area of advanced biofuels, requires testing and analysis to confirm that we’re proceeding down a path toward scale and commercial viability.”

Synthetic Genomics founder J Craig Venter – a key player behind the project to map the human genome and leader of the team that created the world’s first cell controlled by synthetic DNA, said the development showed the importance of bioengineering.

“The SGI-ExxonMobil science teams have made significant advances over the last several years in efforts to optimise lipid production in algae. This important publication today is evidence of this work, and we remain convinced that synthetic biology holds crucial answers to unlocking the potential of algae as a renewable energy source.”

Nature Biotechnology: http://doi.org/b8s6  

Article by Adam Duckett

Editor, The Chemical Engineer

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