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Synthetic Genomics CEO Announces Bleak Outlook for Biofuels

by Cassidy Noblejas Bartolomei, published
Credit: Synthetic Genomics, Inc.

Algae growing in closed bioreactors in SGI/Exxon Mobil greenhouse

John Craig Venter, CEO of Synthetic Genomics announced earlier this month, consumers must continue to wait for an alternative energy source to fossil fuels until the federal government establishes an effective carbon policy.

Since Synthetic Genomics opened on Torrey Pines Road in La Jolla in 2005, it has been pioneering genomic science to unlock the potential of microbial and plant resources to develop products that address global energy and environmental challenges. Synthetic Genomics teamed with the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI) to commercialize its genomic-driven technologies.

The company has successfully commercialized a one-step isothermal approach to enable rapid assembly of DNA fragments called the Gibson Assembly, but has been unable to progress commercially in its most sought after product areas; namely, renewable fuels and chemicals.

Synthetic Genomics partnered with ExxonMobil in 2009 for a multi-year research and development strategic alliance to focus on exploring the most efficient and cost effective ways to produce biofuels using photosynthetic algae. The algae, capable of producing fuel and chemicals directly from sunlight and carbon dioxide, is being designed to streamline with the market’s existing distribution infrastructure.

Despite the JCVI’s cutting edge scientific research and Synthetic Genomics' unique business model, the effort to provide next generation biofuels has proved difficult. At a presentation on genomics and synthetic biology in San Diego, Venter declared, “It doesn’t matter what the scientific breakthroughs are, there’s no way to beat oil… Basically, if we don’t have a carbon policy, and an effective carbon policy soon, biofuels are just dead.”

Venter explained the present federal regulations make is impossible for fuel made out of renewables to compete with the production of oil companies, but the Synthetic Genomics partnership with Exxon will continue its efforts.

The steep increases in gas prices, declining health of the environment, and the erosion of the world economy demands that petroleum production be curtailed or improved; but the demands of the work-a-day world have made such reductions impossible and improvements difficult. Consumers have been teased time and time again with the promise of alternative fuel sources, and for the time being, synthetically engineered biofuels have proved to be yet another tease.

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