ExxonMobil, genome genius Craig Venter sign on for algae-fuel race

Craig Venter, the cowboy/geneticist/genius responsible for souping up the race to decode the human genome, has lately been trying to figure out ways to turn algae into mini oil gushers. Solving that conundrum -- producing cheap fuel -- would give him the rare distinction of having conquered two of the Modern Era's greatest scientific problems.

Apparently, his intense efforts to draw alternative fuels from green soup are paying off. Yesterday, the outspoken Venter got a huge vote of confidence from oil giant ExxonMobil (XOM), which signed a multiyear R&D agreement with Venter's Synthetic Genomics (SGI). The deal is one of the largest to date for the nascent algae biofuels segment. Exxon agreed to invest $600 million with Venter in algae biofuel programs, including $300 million in SGI itself.
The cash injection will support five years' research at the San Diego-based startup, which has also received funding from high-profile venture capital firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson and from oil giant BP. But Exxon expects that within 10 years, algae will produce significant amounts of transportation fuels.

The attraction of algae as a biofuel reactor is its ability to reproduce and grow quickly. Algae can double its bodymass in less than 24 hours, which land-based plants that produce high amounts of oil cannot. And unlike land-based plants, algae can be grown in plastic tubes and pipes or stacked up the sides of buildings. But algae can be finicky and sensitive to contaminants and pollution. To date, no one has made a large-scale biofuel production facility powered by algae.

Venter and Exxon already face stiff competition from HR Biopetroleum, a Hawaii-based rival that's teamed up with Royal Dutch Shell in a similar quest. HR has a number of the top luminaries in the algae biology field, including Robert Bidigare, director of the Center for Marine Microbial Ecology and Diversity at the University of Hawaii.

Both Venter and the Hawaii team appear to be using a shotgun approach, not unlike Venter's famed DNA-mapping technology, allowing each team to rapidly test thousands of strains of algae for genes that produce and store significant amounts of oils. By seeking out oils instead of starches used to make ethanol, the two teams are targeting direct integration into the existing petroleum-refining process.
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