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Synthetic Genomics, Exxon Mobil Announce Breakthrough in Algae Gene Editing

June 19, 2017
Executives from Synthetic Genomics and Exxon Mobil today held a joint press conference at the 2017 BIO International Convention to announce a breakthrough in algal biofuel research accomplished under their eight-year-old partnership. Synthetic Genomics founder J. Craig Venter and CEO Oliver Fetzer joined Exxon Mobil Vice President for Research and Development Vijay Swarup to announce the publication of a new paper in Nature Biotechnology describing the breakthrough. Study authors Robert Brown, Imad Ajjawi, and Eric Moellering of Synthetic Genomics were also on hand to describe the research.

Synthetic Genomics was able to accomplish something that had eluded previous researchers – increasing lipid production in an algae strain without sacrificing continued growth or starving the organism of nutrients. The research team used CRISPR-Cas9 techniques to edit 18 transcription factors within the algae organism. From there, they were able to target one gene regulator as a promising means to dial up lipid production. The team doubled the algae strain’s natural ability to produce oil before witnessing a decline in its growth rate.

Moreover, the team found that this particular gene regulator is universal in photosynthetic organisms, meaning the technique could be applied to other algae strains. Venter stressed that this research breakthrough will require more development before it can be commercialized. And then it will require additional work to scale it up as a viable option for biofuels and renewable chemicals.

Nonetheless, the announcement is certain to generate additional buzz at the Convention, which will feature a full day of panels and sessions on biofuels and renewable chemicals, with much of the discussion centering on synthetic biology techniques. Those conversations will be continued at July’s BIO World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology in Montreal.