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Biofuels: are transgenics the way forward?

AlgaeThings you never knew about genetics but were too afraid to ask;

  1. Due to a temperature sensitive fur colour mutation, you can shave your name into a Siamese Cat’s fur and it will grow back black
  2. Due to a faulty melanin gene, all blue eyed white cats are deaf
  3. Due to X chromosome inactivation, you only get female tortoise shell cats*

Late on Friday evening, very shortly before rushing to the pub, Greenbang brushed up on her genetics knowledge and had a call with Professor Jonathan Gressel of the Weizmann Institute, Israel. It seems Professor Gressel is working on transgenic algae to improve the organism’s ability to produce biodiesel. The majority of his work now focuses on the start-up TransAlgae which is currently still in the development phase but could possibly create great things.

In a paper entitled ‘Transgenics are imperative for biofuel crops’, the professor argues that a more cynical view on biofuels is needed to best achieve a sustainable fuel:

If the pros and cons are not fully discussed, the research and development that needs to be done will not be done. Clearly it is naive, ignorant of history, or conceited to think that one can efficiently grow species as biofuel crops that have not been domesticated for that purpose, yet the cultivation of species that have not undergone years of breeding let alone millennia of selective domestication is being widely promoted. Biotechnology has the potential to assist in rapidly overcoming many of the short-comings of the species being promoted, especially those characters that are intractable to breeding, where exogenous genes are needed, or where tissue-specific or temporal expression 0r suppression of endogenous genes would be valuable.

Speaking to Professor Gressel, he believes that biodiesel will be easier to develop than biohydrogen, “the question is how easily will it be to press and put in cars.” There are several issues that Professor Gressel sees as imperative if transgenics are to take of. Not least of which is ensuring that the algae “cannot escape and grow outside of cultivation,” a problem that helped end the tests on GM crops in the late 90s.

As Professor Gressel puts it, Trans Algae “we’ll hit regulatory hurdles… but we’re far from regulation problems at present.” There are just so many steps to start considering from how to harvest the ‘crop’ to the light penetration, temperature control and depth of pools. That said, Gressel believes large scale production could be up and running within 10 years and at a competitive price, removing all need for carbon credits or subsides.

He doesn’t believe that algae is necessarily a licence to print money. Aside from the bioreactors themselves “there is the cost of harvesting, extraction and labour that all cost money.” However, the byproducts are also useful and can be sold as feed to farms.

Greenbang isn’t sure if Gressel and TransAlgae will be the first to enhance biofuel production using algae, for example, Professor Melis of Berkley is working in a similar area, however, she is intrigued as to where it can take the green fuels area.

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