Biomass '09: Transgenic algae pose environmental risks

By Anna Austin
Posted July 15, 2009, at 2:04 p.m. CST

While algae have become an attractive candidate for biomass-based fuels and carbon recycling, the risks of genetically modifying algae for such purposes are tremendous, according to David Haberman, president of Florida-based IF LLC.

Current efforts to genetically mutate algae are impetuous, mad rushes, Haberman told attendees of the feedstock session at the Biomass '09: Power, Fuels and Chemicals Workshop in Grand Forks, N.D.,

"Exxon made a recent announcement that they would spend $600 million on the genetic modification of algae in pursuit of biomass-derived biofuels," he said. "Of that, $300 million is for in-house work, and the other $300 million is intended to go to an industrial team led by a team called Synthetic Genomics. For those who know this, this is run by the gentleman who was credited with decoding the human genome approximately 10 years ago."

Haberman said there is a complete lack of regulation and information in the genetic modification of algae, and many who are aspirants have no capabilities, experience or resources to mitigate the associated risks. He said the U.S. EPA responded to an inquiry by saying it had not established regulations or standards in regards to transgenic algae and has deep concerns about all transgenic organisms that possible could be released into nature.

"I'd like to remind everybody that algae play a very specific and special role in our environment," Haberman said. "[Algae] produce 50 percent of the earth's oxygen and serve as a primary life interface between the oceans and the atmosphere." Algae have an extremely diverse existence on this planet, he added, and scientists have determined there may be up to 50,000 different species.

The issue is what can you do with naturally occurring algae, or rather, what can't you do with it? The answer is that nobody knows, Haberman said. "The rush for genetic modification has very little to do with any real understanding with what the real environment has to offer today," he said.

Haberman reminded attendees of the evolutionary relationship between algae and higher plants, and of its ubiquitous nature on our planet. The genetic modification of algae can and possibly will create risks not just technical and ecosystem risks, but also risks to public health, public acceptance and regulatory acceptance.

Transgenic algae characteristics pose unique risks, according to Haberman. For example, algae have an extremely adaptable, robust nature. "In the energy business, power plant operators spend the vast majority of their time trying to kill algae in the cooling stacks, which is very hard to do," he said. "When you genetically modify it, it's going to be very hard to kill."

In France, barges of chlorine are be used to try to kill toxic algae growth, Haberman said. "They can't even kill it with chlorine, so now their idea is to bring Asia sea slugs in to try to kill the algae," he said. "Can you see where this is going? Are we so arrogant that we believe that man is going to control nature? I don't subscribe to that."

Haberman said there is a distinct lack of knowledge surrounding algae's role in ecosystems and food chains. "Don't let anyone tell you differently," he said. "We don't know, to a great extent, what algae do in our biosphere."

There is $4 billion to $6 billion in the algae economy across the globe for the production of food, fertilizer and high-value chemicals, according to Haberman. "If you can naturally conduct biological mechanisms to deliver food, drugs and algal oil from a naturally-bred species, it should be a good signal for what the biopotential is for algae without having to do genetic modifications," he said.

The workshop was held July 14-15.