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What have scientists and algae companies got to talk about Genetic Enginnering of algae ? Posted by Sumukhi on Sun August 08 2010 07:10:28 PM 2

Many scientists, particularly those in the algae business, say the fears of using genetically engineered algae are overblown. Just as food crops cannot thrive without a farmer to nourish them and fend off pests, algae modified to be energy crops would be uncompetitive against wild algae if they were to escape, even inside their own ponds.

Instead of using open ponds, some companies are using bioreactors, which typically contain algae in tubes. Experts say these would not totally prevent escapes. Sapphire says it is not growing any genetically engineered algae in open ponds yet. Genetically engineered algae, whether in open ponds or enclosed bioreactors, are likely to be regulated by environmental protection law.

The opinion of a few scientists and companies have been highlighted below:

Groenwold - Scientist- University of North Dakota

We are not saying don?t do this,? said Gerald H. Groenewold, director of the University of North Dakota?s Energy and Environmental Research Center, who is trying to organise a study of the risks. ?We say do this with the knowledge of the implications and how to safeguard what you are doing.?

David Haberman - Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technical Advisory Committee

A week earlier, at an industry-sponsored bioenergy conference, David Haberman, an electrical engineer by training, served from 2000 to 2005 as a member of the Energy Department's Hydrogen Technical Advisory Panel, (now known as the Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technical Advisory Committee).

He has been a leading voice calling for an overarching risk analysis of genetically modified algae and its impacts to human health and environment.

Stephen Mayfield - Scientist - University of California, Co- founder- Sapphire Energy

?Everything we do to engineer an organism makes it weaker,? said Stephen Mayfield, a professor of biology at the University of California, San Diego, and a co-founder of Sapphire.

Dr Mayfield and other scientists say there have been no known environmental problems in the 35 years that scientists have been genetically engineering bacteria, although some organisms have escaped from laboratories.

David Haberman and Stephen Mayfield:

In a worst-case scenario, Haberman asserts, the genetically modified algae might even be used in weapons to destroy fisheries or make large numbers of people sick.

While Stephen Mayfield, says he foresees a future where GM algae research would be moved outdoors to open ponds, he said it is unlikely the engineered substance could compete with natural strains.

"If they get out, they won't do better than the local guys. We're trying to make these guys couch potatoes," he said. Changes biologists are making to the algae are designed to make them "big and fat and happy," to optimize their oil output, he said. When you do that, "they generally don't survive out in the world."

Lissa Morgenthaler-Jones - LiveFuels.

Algae replicate much more quickly than other GMO crops, echoed Livefuels' Morgenthaler-Jones. Livefuels is a California-based company working on turning natural strains of algae into biofuels

"With corn, you can expect one crop a year, but with algae, you could get one crop a day.

" Such strains from the lab have already leaked out into the environment in small quantities.

"They have been carried out on skin, on hair and all sort of other ways, like being blown on a breeze out the air conditioning system," she said.

However, there is no body that would be documenting that type of information, so it is unknown whether or not that assertion is well-founded. But if such algae are out there, she is not worried, she said. She doubts they could compete with existing natural strains of algae to make a go of it in the wild.

Stan Barnes - Bioalgene,

?Re-engineering algae seem driven more by patent law and investor desire for protection than any real requirement,? said Stan Barnes, chief executive of Bioalgene, one of those companies.

But others argue there are huge obstacles to making algae competitive as an energy source and that every tool will be needed to optimise the strains.

Richard Sayre - Phycal

Algae can reproduce rapidly, and can be carried long distances by the wind. ?They have the potential to blow all over the world,? said Richard Sayre of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis.

Sayre, who is also the chief technology officer of Phycal, an algae company using genetic engineering to develop algae that capture less light.

He explained, If each organism captured less, then a given amount of light could be shared by more organisms, increasing biomass production.

Al Darzins - NREL

Before genetically modified strains are ready to debut in such ponds, however, regulators and researchers must answer a litany of questions about their potential environmental risks, said Al Darzins, a molecular biologist and principal group manager in bioenergy at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

"I'm absolutely convinced that if you're going to be using genetically modified algae in the future -- growing out in an open pond -- that before that happens on a very large scale there has to be some sort of risk assessment on what's going to happen to the potential ecology," he said.

Ari Patrinos - Synthetic Genomics,

Whether the algae escaped from the lab or an outdoor pond -- could be solved with genetic engineering, said Ari Patrinos, president of Synthetic Genomics, the company co-founded by J. Craig Venter, who helped sequence the human genome.

Patrinos' recommendation: engineering organisms that have "suicide genes" that would keep such species from surviving outside of the environment for which they were designed. Though he believes that could be done with current knowledge, he noted: "We aren't doing anything like that ourselves."

Currently, the outlook for GM algae in general remains unclear, said Synthetic Genomics' Patrinos. His company is still unsure if genetically modified algae will ever be a strong, cost-effective competitor with natural strains and is focusing much of its work on exploring natural strains, he said.

"We may wind up never having to use genetically engineered algae in open ponds at all," he said. "Research is research, and people explore all possibilities."

Craig Ventor - Scientist - Creator- Artificial Bacteria

The man behind the first self replicating artificial bacteria says ? Dr. Craig Venter says ? algae should be engineered with a ?suicide gene? to shut down if they escape.?

Jonathan Gressel - TransAlgae

Jonathan Gressel, TransAlgae's chief scientific officer, explained in an interview that its concept is to suppress genes that are not needed in the environment of algae cultivation, but that would be vital if the algae were to survive outside their regulated environment.

The algae could be designed without swimming flagella, with an inability to absorb carbon dioxide from the low levels in seawater or to have other enfeebling traits, depending on the gene.