The prospects for algae-based biofuel have dimmed compared with a decade ago. Yet a handful of companies are tweaking algae genomes to create more economically viable strains. Ironically, while the aim is eco-friendly fuels, the effort poses environmental risks should the pumped-up organisms escape, activists allege.
A report by Friends of the Earth and Biofuelwatch points out that the planet’s native species of algae play an important role at the bottom of the food chain. It cites research showing engineered algae grown in open ponds migrated into the outside environment.
Scientists at ExxonMobil and Synthetic Genomics used CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing to increase lipid production in algae. Biofuelwatch says traits such as enhanced lipid production, improved photosynthetic capacity, and resistance to predators could result in escaped algae that are able to outcompete native species.
“Current regulations are abysmally lacking,” says Rachel Smolker, codirector of Biofuelwatch. No regulation can reliably contain an organism that “gets carried in wind, on clothing, out vents, and on the wings of ducks and waterfowl,” she adds.
Most algae firms have shifted from biofuels to higher-value products. Sapphire Energy, for example, is developing modified algae for use in animal nutrition.
Biofuelwatch says it is monitoring the use of synthetic biology in organisms and plants used to create biofuels. For example, a start-up formed by Bayer and Ginkgo Bioworks plans to develop modified microbes that enhance plant growth. The prospect of releasing such microbes in the soil is “very troubling,” Smolker says.