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Big Hopes for Algae

Mike Mendez, Sapphire Energy co-founder (photo: NY Times)

Andrew Pollack had a long piece in the New York Times yesterday on the race to develop a viable process for making fuel from algae. The article focuses on Sapphire Energy, which has raised $100 million from investors including Bill Gates and is getting another $100 million in federal financing to build a demo project consisting of 300 acres of open ponds in the New Mexico desert. Sapphire claims to have engineered more than 4,000 strains of algae, and they’re far from alone. The story quotes Matthew C. Posewitz, an assistant professor of chemistry at the Colorado School of Mines, estimating there are currently more than 100 academic efforts to use genetic engineering to optimize biofuel production from algae. Not everyone is splicing genes, though — some researchers are using chemicals and accelerated evolution to force mutations in natural algae strains. The story includes a now-obligatory mention of Craig Venter, whose company Synthetic Genomics is the beneficiary of $300 million in research funding from Exxon Mobil. It also touches dutifully on the safety issue — about which the usual critics of transgenic technology don’t really seem to have much of an issue. Margaret Mellon of the Union of Concerned Scientists, for example, says that if genetically engineered algae were to escape, “I would not lose sleep over it at all.” So far, at least, researchers in bio-energy — and in synthetic biology more generally — have been able to avoid the negative stigma attached to bio-engineered crops, but with “Roundup Ready” algae on the way, and all that implies, things could certainly change down the road.

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