Scientists are homing in on the fewest genes needed for an organism to survive.
By Karen Weintraub
Why: Genetically engineered microbes are a promising way to make biofuels.
Key innovation: Created synthetic bacterial cells, possibly paving the way for organisms specifically tailored to make fuels.
Strains of algae engineered by Synthetic Genomics excrete oils that could be refined to make biofuels, including equivalents of gasoline and diesel. In partnership with ExxonMobil, which has agreed to invest up to $600 million in the project, the company is studying many strains of algae, using high-throughput methods to help identify those that produce large amounts of the desired oils and to reveal techniques for engineering known strains in ways that will increase their oil production.
Ethanol is the leading biofuel today, but the market for it is constrained by the difficulty of distributing it and using it in vehicles. Demand could be much greater for biofuels that can be produced at existing refineries, distributed in existing pipelines, and used in most vehicles.
In 2010, researchers at the J. Craig Venter Institute announced that they had made the first synthetic cell by piecing together a genome made from bottled chemicals and transplanting it into a recipient cell. The research was funded by Synthetic Genomics and is a first step in engineering microbes from scratch to produce biofuels. Although the synthetic bacterial cell produced is unsuited for fuel production, researchers intend to create an algae genome that has been optimized for fuel production.
Challenges and Next Steps:
Last July, ExxonMobil and Synthetic Genomics opened a greenhouse facility at Synthetic Genomics headquarters in La Jolla, California, to test different strains of algae in conditions that more closely approximate the real world. Researchers will test whether putting the algae in either open ponds or closed bioreactors will yield enough fuel to make the method commercially viable.