October 17, 2012

Science to the Rescue: Synthetic Genomics and the Road to Commercial Biofuels

One of the knocks against advanced algae biofuels is that they are not cost competitive with conventional petroleum – which is true.  But science may eventually offer a way around this particular challenge.

Writing recently in Yale Environment 360, Marc Gunther lays out the potential for science to revolutionize the biofuels business. “By far the biggest opportunity to reduce the costs of algal fuels lies within the algae,” Gunther writes. “Just as crop scientists have bred corn and wheat to improve yields, with spectacular results, the algae companies are using conventional breeding and genetic modification to develop strains of algae to grow faster, yield more oil, and repel pests.”

The biggest opportunity may come from synthetic genomics, a relatively nascent field that enables scientists to build living organisms with special characteristics from scratch. By closely studying strains of algae, scientists can map entire genetic sequences and identify the genes tied to specific physical properties like growth and oil yield. Using the building blocks of the genome – DNA nucleotides – scientists can then build from scratch the most efficient algae strain for producing oils that can be refined into gasoline and jet fuel, lowering the costs for producers.

In an interview with Scientific American in November 2011, J. Craig Venter, the man behind mapping the human genome, described the effort this way:

Everybody is looking for a naturally occurring algae that is going to be a miracle cell to save the world and, after a century of looking, people still haven't found it. We hope we're different. The [genetic] tools give us a new approach: being able to rewrite the genetic code and get cells to do what we want them to do.  

By using synthetic genomics to create novel strains of algae, engineers can focus not just on making the algae more efficient oil producers, but also making them resistant to viruses that destroy whole ponds of algae and can drive up production costs. “The same genetic engineering and genome engineering we have, we can make cells that are resistant to viruses,” Venter told Scientific American. “Getting algae that are really robust and can withstand true industrial conditions on a commercial basis. You can't afford to shut down a plant for contamination. Most algae growers have to do that at a fairly frequent pace.”

Synthetic genomics still has a way to go before commercial biofuel companies can produce novel strains of algae with predictable physical characteristics that will cut down production costs. Despite the advancements in genetics, scientists still struggle to develop algae with predictable features in part because there is a gap in understanding of how non-gene DNA – what has been called “junk DNA” – controls genetic expression. According to a recent report in The New York Times:

As scientists delved into the “junk” — parts of the DNA that are not actual genes containing instructions for proteins — they discovered a complex system that controls genes. At least 80 percent of this DNA is active and needed. The result of the work is an annotated road map of much of this DNA, noting what it is doing and how. It includes the system of switches that, acting like dimmer switches for lights, control which genes are used in a cell and when they are used, and determine, for instance, whether a cell becomes a liver cell or a neuron.

As scientists advance their understanding of how to control genetic expression, engineers will also improve their ability to develop novel strains of algae that can help aid the commercialization of advanced biofuels. All the more reason for the United States to continue public and private sector funding for research in the biological sciences. In just a few short years, scientists may unlock key aspects to synthesizing commercial biofuels that can compete with petroleum, all the while improving U.S. energy security by diversifying the U.S. liquid fuel mix and enabling the United States to make progress toward national goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.   

Photo: Courtesy of flickr user ynse. 

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