Tag Archives: Synthetic Genomics

ExxonMobil’s Algal Biofuel “Breakthrough” Is Significant – but Not a Real Breakthrough

Last week, ExxonMobil and Synthetic Genomics jointly announced they doubled the lipid content of an algae strain from 20% to 40% without significantly hindering the strain’s growth. The news comes on the heels of the second renewal of their joint research agreement originally started in 2009 and is the biggest breakthrough yet to come out of this partnership. According to the published research paper, the team used the CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing system to inhibit a gene that suppresses lipid production in the algae.

Lipid content is the most influential factor in the production cost of algal biofuels. We previously estimated the cost of algal fuels at $13.50 per gallon of gasoline equivalent (GGE) for an algae with 25% lipid content. However, increasing the lipid content to 40% only brings the fuel cost down to about $9.40/GGE, still a long way from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)’s target of $5.00/GGE by 2019. This improvement moves the needle in the development of algal fuels, but many more breakthroughs will be needed for the technology to reach commercial viability. This new development comes at a time where interest in algae fuels sharply collapsed, causing surviving algae developers to pivot into alternative markets. While consumer perception will curb the use of genetically engineered algae strains in food, animal feed may be a promising alternative target market although the technology will struggle to compete with inexpensive fish meal lipid alternatives. ExxonMobil’s and Synthetic Genomics’ announcement steers algal biofuels in a positive direction after years of failed promises but readers should remain cognizant that algae will unlikely be an economically viable technology solely for biofuels.

By: Runeel Daliah and Arij van Berkel

What Are the Major Alternative Fuels Interests of Oil Majors?

As the alternative fuels industry diversifies and scales up, financing is always the key to technology commercialization. While several sources of financing drive the whole industry forward, we investigate the trends of corporate financing from oil majors, based on a non-exhaustive database of over 1,000 deals and partnership engagements from 2000 through September 2014. With the focus on financial engagement, we only look into the private placement, equity stake, joint venture (JV), mergers and acquisitions (M&A), other than general partnerships. For example, we counted BP’s bioethanol JV plant with British Sugar, but we didn’t include BP’s research work with the Energy Biosciences Institute. We then drew a graph based on the investment counts (rather than invested companies) of the seven most activate oil majors in our database, namely, Shell, BP, Total, Valero, Chevron, Petrobras and Reliance. Particularly, repeated investment activities on the same company would be counted as multiple. We further sorted the investment by six core technology families – algae, biomass to sugar, catalysis, crop development, fermentation (and enzyme development), and pyrolysis/gasification.

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From our analysis of their activities in the alternative fuels industry, we find that:

  • BP leads the investment frequency in a variety of technology families. Particularly, it has a strong focus on the crop development by transgenics and breeding, with repeated investments made to Chromatin (client registration required) and Mendel Biotechnology (client registration required). It also continues investing on biomass to sugar technology including to handle cellulosic biomass, such as REAC Fuel (client registration required).
  • Shell is not a fan of crop development, but has a wide coverage on other technologies. For example, it invested on multiple rounds and formed a JV with Iogen (client registration required), but terminated the JV in 2012. Then the oil giant formed partnerships and JVs with Codexis (client registration required), Cosan, and Novozymes to continue its interests in cellulosic ethanol. Shell shifted its shares in Codexis to Raizen, its ethanol JV with Cosan and “formed the largest sugar and ethanol company in the world”. It also partnered with Virent (client registration required) on the biomass catalytic conversion to produce renewable gasoline, and Cellana (HR BioPetroleum) on algae biofuel. Moreover, Shell Foundation also funded Husk Power System (client registration required) on gasification development.
  • Total and Chevron are the most active corporate investors in the fermentation domain. Total did the private placement on the IPO of Gevo (client registration required) and formed a JV with Amyris (client registration required) with both focusing on corn and sugar cane feedstocks. Gevo is focusing on isobutanol fermentation and Amyris is doing the bioconversion to produce isoprenoids. On the other hand, Chevron invested in Codexis (client registration required) and LS9 (client registration required) with its concentration on the genetic engineering, while LS9 was acquired by Renewable Energy Group in early 2014 (client registration required). All invested companies by these two giants are diversifying their revenue streams with drop-in fuels, specialty chemicals, and/or drugs in downstream markets.
  • Velero has a strong focus on the drop-in fuel production either by bioconversion or catalysis. Valero owns 10 facilities in the U.S. with over 1,000 MGY corn ethanol capacity. However, it is also interested in cellulosic ethanol with its funding of Qteros, Mascoma Corporation (client registration required), and Enerkem (client registration required). Additionally, the focus on waste feedstock can be reflected by its investments in the ill-fated Terrabon (client registration required), which was focused on wet waste-to-gasoline.
  • Investments of oil majors in developing countries are more constrained by local resources and policy drivers. For example, Reliance is investing the algae technology developers such as Algae.Tec (client registration required), Aurora Algae (client registration required), and Algenol Biofuels. Petrobras is concerned with fuel production from sugar cane or bagasse, such as BTG-BTL (client registration required) and BIOecon, which combine the feedstock advantage and local policy driver. Other oil majors not listed in the graph, such as Chinese oil majors, Sinopec and PetroChina (CNPC), are shifting their focuses from food ethanol to cellulosic ethanol and coal-to-ethanol, which is responding to the call of the Chinese government to discourage the food ethanol industry (see the report “Fueling China’s Vehicle Market with Advanced and Coal-based Ethanol” — client registration required.)
  • Less active oil majors in this space include ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips. They only made sporadic investments – such as Synthetic Genomics (client registration required) by ExxonMobil and ADM by ConocoPhilips. Additionally, ExxonMobil mobile recently teamed up with Iowa State University to research pyrolysis.

Drilling, spilling, and tilling: Will Obama act on the BP oil catastrophe with rhyme and reason?

It’s said that history doesn’t repeat itself, but sometimes it rhymes. Shortly after the BP Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, biofuel supporters were chanting “Till, Baby, Till!” in a parody of offshore drilling supporters’ cries of “Drill, Baby, Drill!” at Sarah Palin rallies last year. In the same spirit, political commentators have sought the right rhyme for the giant oil spill itself among prior comparable catastrophes. The disaster was initially called “Obama’s Katrina” by the President’s political enemies, comparing his inaction to President Bush’s widely criticized slow response to Hurricane Katrina. When the scale of the disaster became known, BP’s chairman made a comparison to “Three-Mile Island,” implying that this disaster could put a stop to petroleum as the 1970s disaster effectively froze the U.S. nuclear industry. And now, as the spill has become the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history, even the president’s supporters are comparing it to 9/11 – with “The World is Flat” author Tom Friedman and others making the case that Obama is squandering a historic opportunity to unite the country and possibly the world behind renewable energy.

Given that biofuels are the most direct substitute for the petroleum that’s central to the current crisis, they are likely to receive the most attention from politicians and citizens alike. Moreover, they’re a natural fit for the climate and the economy of the southern U.S. states directly affected by the spill: if Mendel’s 1,200 gal/acre yield claims hold true, Alabama farmers could replace their 360,000 acres of cotton (worth about $250 million at 850 lbs/acre yields and a price of $0.78/lb) with miscanthus, and convert it using technology being developed in neighboring states, like BlueFire’s* cellulosic ethanol biorefinery in Mississippi or DuPont Danisco’s 250,000 gal/yr cellulosic ethanol plant in Tennessee to produce 432 million gallons of ethanol (worth nearly $1 billion at today’s spot price of $1.98). Gulf-state algae companies like PetroAlgae* and PetroSun could get a political and economic boost with their potential to provide biocrude and biodiesel. The risk, however, is that many sketchy biofuel startups will reap millions of taxpayer and investor dollars as they use the oil spill catastrophe to opportunistically promote technologies that have no chance of ever working.

What’s the best path forward for the U.S. government? Despite his acknowledged missteps, Bush’s response to 9/11 provides useful analogies and ideas. At the bottom line, there’s the scope: the total cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is $2.4 trillion according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, which would amount to a pretty large check for cleaner energy. Where neither Bush nor his then-rival Kerry opted to tax gasoline to fund the war and invest in alternative fuels when gas prices cost half what they do today, Obama should seize the moment and push to tax carbon. A carbon tax would encompass not just oil but also the coal industry, which the recent mining catastrophe shows is also ripe for action. As Bush united 22 federal agencies ranging from Defense to Transportation to Treasury under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Obama should create a Department of Energy and Environment Security that unites overlapping and conflicting activities at the U.S. Departments of Energy, Transportation, and Agriculture, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency. The envisioned agency would also expand the Coast Guard, and totally overhaul the corrupt and ineffective Minerals Management Service – effectively absorbing it, as the DHS absorbed the Immigration and Naturalization Service. And as Bush invested in developing and deploying new airport security technology like terahertz scanners, the country needs investment in developing and deploying new technology like biorefineries, bioremediation, and other alternative fuels (such as coal-bed methane) in development by startups like Luca, Taxon, Ciris, Profero, and in an ironic rhyme, by Synthetic Genomics in collaboration with BP.

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To read more insights from Lux Research analysts visit Lux Populi.

Original syn: debate over definition of first synthetic life presages commercial and IP battles

Last month, scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI) announced the creation of a replicating “synthetic” bacterial cell – or, in other words, they may have created the world’s first synthetic life form.
 
The team synthesized a modified Mycoplasma mycoides genome about 1 million base pairs (bp) long from about 1,000 fragments that were each some 1,000 bp in length. Gene foundry Blue Heron fabricated the genome from basic biochemicals based on digital sequences, and assembled it in an Escherichia coli cell. The team then transplanted the genome into a third organism, Mycoplasma capricolum, the DNA of which was destroyed in the experiment. The cells began multiplying in culture, expressing the genes encoded only in the synthetic DNA – signifying what could arguably be synthetic life.
 
And argument is what ensued – predictably, since the achievement was pre-announced less than a year ago (see the September 1, 2009 LRBJ*), and foreseeable from the time the program was launched in 2007. So when Nature asked eight synthetic-biology experts about the implications for science and society, rival scientists sniffed that the synthetic cell “does not quite constitute a ‘synthetic cell’ by my definition” (Steen Rasmussen, Professor of Physics, University of Southern Denmark). At the same time, bioethicists fretted that “Nobody can be sure about the consequences of making new forms of life, and we must expect the unexpected and the unintended” (Mark Bedau, Professor of Philosophy and Humanities, Reed College, Oregon).
 
Friends of the Earth called for a stop to research until regulations are in place, and ETC Group (which cleverly named the then-uncreated organism “Synthia” in 2007) warned that “Craig Venter is handing this powerful technology to the world’s most irresponsible and environmentally damaging industry by partnering with the likes of BP and Exxon” (see the June 23, 2009 LRBJ*). The Vatican viewed the results as “positive,” before pointedly adding an injunction to “never forget that there is only one creator” (hint: not Venter). Meanwhile the White House called for a commission to study the implications.
 
Venter himself deflected the question, telling CNN it was a “living self-replicating cell” with “no genetic ancestors… whose DNA was made chemically and designed in the computer.” CNN’s response – “Some critics suggest you shouldn’t make life from a computer” – helped illustrate the profound vacuity of mainstream media on this topic.
 
So, did the JCVI create life? While the question is a philosophical and linguistic morass, for what it’s worth, we’d say the answer is yes. Although the first step was a cell with a synthetic genome rather than a “synthetic cell,” all of its progeny sprung from lab chemicals. Even if the initial M. capricolum cell was once alive, it was certainly not living with its DNA destroyed. And the synthetic DNA was not alive before it was patched into sequence by Blue Heron and the JCVI team. By combining two collections of non-living biomolecules and creating something capable of metabolism and self-replication, the JCVI set in motion a process that must die to end. However, as monumental as JCVI’s achievement is, it will soon be yesterday’s news. In practical terms, it may have manufactured life but did not even attempt to “design” or “control” life, as the genome it used has only cosmetic differences from M. mycoides’ natural genetic code. But designing novel genes is already common, and designer genes will certainly be put into future synthetic cells. In sum, this achievement represents both the culmination of many incremental steps (and the first of many more) on a spectrum of human-created life that will almost certainly advance beyond the point of dispute in coming years, and many people will always regard this as the watershed moment.
 
So what will the reception and impact of this work be? “Living” technologies ranging from organic chemistry to in-vitro fertilization have met huge initial ethical opposition, but ultimately lived or died on their merits (see the April 28, 2009 LRBJ*). Synthetic biology’s value will be determined by the benefit brought by products like biofuels and medicines from Synthetic Genomics, Gevo, Codexis, Amyris, and dozens of other firms using the technology (see the December 8, 2009 LRBJ*). Today’s “Synthia” cost $30 million to create. But the history of past technologies indicates that she will seem quaintly simple and exorbitantly expensive when costs plummet (see the February 10, 2009 LRBJ*), finance soars (see the August 25, 2009 LRBJ*), patenting battles begin (see the June 23, 2009 LRBJ*), and commercial success is widespread (see the report “Synthetic Biology’s Commercial Roadmap”) a few years hence.
 
* Client registration required.