Can ExxonMobil use synthetic biology to commercialize algae fuels?

[USA] We have fossil fuels today because a bunch of algae and other biomass sank to the bottom of dinosaur-laden swamps tens of millions of years ago, where it was compressed over time into its current form. Or something like that.

Crude oil, natural gas, and coal dominate the energy landscape of the modern world, and nowhere is that dominance more absolute than the transportation sector, which is almost entirely dependent on liquid petroleum fuels. While it looks increasingly likely that electric vehicles will grab significant market share in the coming decades, liquid fuels won’t be coughing up the entire market anytime soon. That fact has encouraged many companies to pursue novel renewable fuels, with relatively little to show for it in terms of commercialized technologies.

While ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM) is well aware of this recent history, it has maintained a long-term focus on one of biotech’s holy grails: limitless volumes of drop-in algae fuels. Exxon has the money. It has technical prowess. It has time. Can the oil supermajor successfully use synthetic biology tools to commercialize algae fuels?

A bold bet on the bioeconomy

ExxonMobil’s ultimate goal is to commercialize a genetically engineered algae strain capable of producing economically viable renewable fuels and chemicals in large outdoor facilities. And it’s taking practical steps to get there.

For one thing, it partnered with cutting-edge synthetic biology company Synthetic Genomics (SGI). SGI has a number of groundbreaking accomplishments under its belt. It created the first synthetic organism (descended from a computer program), discovered the minimal viable genome needed to boot up life (31% of the genes have unknown functions), and is even building a device that could synthesize microbes found on Mars from a transmitted radio signal (among other uses).

Put another way, SGI isn’t some wishy washy start-up high on hype and low on execution. Instead, it’s exactly what ExxonMobil needs, especially given the daunting hurdles on the horizon.

That technical expertise has already paid dividends. In 2017 ExxonMobil and SGI announced they had discovered a way to make their algae strain twice as efficient at producing oil without affecting growth rates — the best of both worlds, as past efforts to increase oil production has resulted in slower-growing organisms.

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