Synthetic Genomics CTO speaks on the state of algae

| October 28, 2011

Craig Venter, founder of Synthetic Genomics, may have been the one on the minds of everyone at the 2011 Algae Biomass Summit for his recent comments calling into question the approach his company is pursuing with oil major ExxonMobil to develop advanced biofuels, but it was Jim Flatt, the chief technology officer of Synthetic Genomics, who addressed the crowd at the 5th annual conference. When asked about Venter’s comments, Flatt responded with a smile, explaining to the crowd that Venter has always liked to push people to their thought limits.

Flatt, formerly with cellulosic ethanol developer Mascoma, and the agricultural giant Martek, provided his version of a state of the state address of the California-based company (and one day earlier he announced the formation of a new spin-off company with a Mexican-based partner to utilize Synthetic Genomics’ capabilities to enhance crops for food and fuel). “I’m here to provide the state of synthetic biology,” he said, explaining soon after that “we are kidding ourselves as an industry if we think that we will actually have commercially deployable, economically competitive solutions that will be based on naturally occurring microalgae.” From Flatt’s perspective, “We don’t see it from the data that we look at.”

To explain his stance on naturally occurring microalgae’s ability to provide us with a feasible source of biofuel feedstock, he used an analogy of a taxi car and a Formula One race car. In his estimation, what nature has given us is like a taxi car, “it is not very fast.” But a Formula One car that has been stripped of everything that affects the cars speed, and only functions in a highly controlled environment, is much faster and is similar to the algae strains necessary for use as biofuel feedstock. Looking at it this way “gives us some insight into the nature of solving this problem,” he said.

That problem is something Synthetic Genomics is certainly well equipped for, and a reason Flatt said that should give the industry hope. But for those without his company’s abilities, the fact that certain strains in selective conditions have shown the necessary traits that would make the algae act like that race car in certain situations also provides hope. “With respect to progress in the field,” he said, “advances are definitely showing an S-curve response.”

Those advancements in synthetic biology have to do with two major achievements, he explained. First, we have advancements in methodology to rapidly assemble large segments of DNA, and second, the ability to transplant that and activate those large segments to a recipient cell. In the past, building a synthetic cell, like an algal cell with all of the traits like photosynthetic efficiency, environmental robustness or high lipid production, has cost roughly $1 million, but today is down to  $400,000. Flatt’s company has an advantage in that space, due in part to a software platform that rapidly integrates public and private data that even “novices” can use. That means that the company can vastly speed up the process of searching through gene sets in the quest to find the right gene’s containing the right DNA sequences that can then be used to build a synthetic cell.

“The field of metabolic engineering has been testing these strains one approach at a time,” he said, “and I would argue that it will work, but it will take us a long time to get there.” But with Synthetic Genomic’s ability to move through the process faster, because they can “design and synthesize genes in a single day,” combined with everyone’s ability to look across species to identify where relative phenotypic differences exist in order to generate some additional leads to genetic elements with respect to making good targets (algae strains), Flatt inferred that the state of the industry is looking good.