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Synthetic Biology News: Promise and Risk

Several news outlets have reported on a recent big deal between ExxonMobil and Synthetic Genomics Inc., a privately held company headed by Craig Venter, to collaborate on the development of biofuels from algae.

According to the Business Wire report, if research and development milestones are successfully met, ExxonMobil expects to spend more than $600 million on the project, including $300 million in internal costs and potentially more than $300 million to Venter’s company.

The Wall Street Journal’s Environmental Capital blog reports: “The Exxon/SGI venture offers a twist on traditional methods of turning algae into biofuel. The companies are trying to tweak the algae to excrete a ‘hydrocarbon-like’ liquid that can be run through existing refineries and turned into transportation fuel. Other algae-to-oil methods basically squeeze the green plants and grab the plant oil they extract.”

Whatever else they may be, the people at ExxonMobil aren’t idiots, and the fact that they’re putting a substantial bet on a synthetic-biology approach to the algae-as-fuel problem is telling. Exxon’s vice-president for R&D, Emil Jacobs, cautions that these are early days –predicting small-scale plants up and running in “five to ten years” — but it’s definitely a promising development in the biofuels sector, which recently seems to have been seeking a direction forward.

In other news, via the Insurance Journal, a new study from Lloyd’s of London (available as a PDF here), states that “the first examples of fully commercialized synthetic biology could be in full production within the next ten years … [and] could play a major part in addressing the increasing shortages of energy, food and water caused by our overstretched planet entering into the grip of climate change.” But, says Trevor Maynard of the Emerging Risks team at Lloyd’s and a contributor to the report, “Its ease-of-use invokes fears in some that terrorists will find it possible to develop ‘bioterror’ weapons … and scientists can’t predict how new life forms will affect delicate ecosystems or human health.” In conclusion, says Maynard, summing up the study’s recommendations: “Like insurers, companies engaged in such development should consider high impact and low probability events in their risk assessments.”

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  1. […] to those of Synthetic Genomics’ biofuels joint venture with Exxon, which I recently wrote about. I wonder what this means for LS9, which is also backed by Flagship Ventures and has had a stated […]

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