ExxonMobil, an american multinational oil and gas corporation, and Synthetic Genomics Inc., a private company focused on the field of synthetic biology, announced a breakthrough in joint research into advanced biofuels involving the modification of an algae strain that more than doubled its oil content (from 20 percent to more than 40 percent) without significantly inhibiting the strain’s growth, with the help of the CRISPR genetic editing technique, a precision intervention that allows targeted correction of a DNA sequence.
Results of the research were published in the journal Nature Biotechnology by lead authors Imad Ajjawi and Eric Moellering of Synthetic Genomics.
Researchers at Synthetic Genomics discovered a new process for increasing oil production by identifying a genetic switch that could be fine-tuned to regulate the conversion of carbon to oil in the algae species, Nannochloropsis gaditana.
This micro-alga doesn’t need fresh water to live (it survives adequately in marine and brackish environments) and produces a large amount of fat that can easily be converted into biodiesel. But natural gifts are not enough. Indeed, the search for perfect algae in nature has not led to the expected results. In short, algae must be induced to produce more fats than they would need in normal conditions. Such a goal can be achieved by depriving them of nitrogen, a nutrient essential for protein synthesis, but it can also drastically inhibit or even stop photosynthesis, halt algae growth, and eventually the volume of oil produced. The alternative is to modify genetic metabolism, but this path has been slowed down by technical difficulties, at least until the arrival of the new CRISPR technology platform. After years of unsuccessful attempts finally the breakthrough has made, although the researchers warn: several pieces of the scientific puzzle are waiting to be settled and the ultimate goal of outdoor cultivation is also a regulatory challenge, in short we are still far away decades since the commercial debut.
The ExxonMobil/Synthetic Genomics alliance began in 2009 when the companies announced a major partnership to develop algae-based biofuels.
“The SGI-ExxonMobil science teams have made significant advances over the last several years in efforts to optimize lipid production in algae. This important publication today is evidence of this work, and we remain convinced that synthetic biology holds crucial answers to unlocking the potential of algae as a renewable energy source,” said J. Craig Venter, Ph.D., Synthetic Genomics co-founder and chairman. “We look forward to continued work with ExxonMobil so that eventually we will indeed have a viable alternative energy source.”