Why does EXXON want to exploit synthetic biology to develop Biofuels?
The word synthetic biology came into existence in 1980 when Barbara Hobom created a genetically engineered bacteria using recombinant DNA technology (Benner S & Sismour A, 2005). The word was reintroduced again by Eric Kool in year 2000 at American Chemical Society conference. In simple terms, synthetic biology is redesigning life (Benner S & Sismour A, 2005). It uses techniques of engineering to create an artificial life or simply it reassembles the parts of existing biological system to alter its function (Benner S & Sismour A, 2005). A synthetic organism can be created both by using artificial DNA sequences designed by computers or using chemically synthesized genomes and by altering the existing organism's regulatory pathways (Synthetic Biology, 2008).
Synthetic biology can be used to develop new therapeutics, to develop biosensors and also to produce efficient foods, drugs, chemicals and energy (Synthetic Biology, 2008). The research market for synthetic biology in year 2008 according to US Department of Energy is estimated to be at £ 300 million which would rise to £ 1.8 billion in subsequent years (Synthetic Biology, 2008). United States dominates research area in synthetic biology while United Kingdom has less number of scientists in this field (Synthetic Biology, 2008). Synthetic organisms can be created by using computational modeling which helps to design and predict the performance of a new entity before its actual formation (www.raeng.org.uk/news/publications/list/reports, 2009). It helps to overcome the shortcomings between a virtual and an actual organism. Another method used is DNA sequencing which analyses the entire genome of an organism in order to find the best sites for modification in the genome.DNA synthesis is also used to create a synthetic organism. Multichannel synthesizer and inkjet technique is used to obtain large amount of DNA (www.raeng.org.uk/news/publications/list/reports, 2009). Escherichia coli are among the most commonly manipulated organisms.
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Synthetic biology finds wide applications in fields of medicine, food and environment. Lawrence Berkeley lab in California, US developed strain of E.coli that can produce amorphadiene, a precursor for anti-malarial drug artemisinin (Benner S & Sismour A, 2005). Yeasts have also been engineered to produce the same (Synthetic Biology, 2008). Biosensors have been made by University of Edinburgh using genetically engineered bacteria to detect arsenic in water (Synthetic Biology, 2008). The wide applications of synthetic biology in different fields are as follows (www.raeng.org.uk/news/publications/list/reports, 2009; Balmer A & Martin P, 2008):
Health - cell counter, Biosensor for diagnostics & monitoring of diseases, custom drugs, tissue engineering.
Energy- Biofuels, Enzymes
Environment- Emission sensors, Biodegradable packaging
Agriculture- Agrofuels, New seed products
Others- Cleansing Biofilms, Bioremediation and Biofabrication.
Evaluating the potential of synthetic biology, Synthetic Genomics Inc. (SGI) was established in 2005 with an aim to solve world energy crisis, to increase biofuel production and to develop more energy yielding crops using synthetic biology (www.exxonmobil.com/corporate/files/news, 2009). Biofuel is the most economical and eco friendly way to solve energy crisis and synthetic biology has ability to modify plants to make them produce more and better quality hydrocarbons. In 2009, SGI and EMRE (Exxon Mobil Research and Engineering Company) launched a joint venture worth $ 600 million to exploit the possibility of using algae to obtain biofuel using synthetic biology (www.exxonmobil.com/corporate/files/news, 2009). Algae contain 2% lipids and 40 % oil by weight (Wagner L, 2007). They can be grown in any type of climate using even waste water. Large quantities of algae can be grown in short time and also they help in maintaining the green house gases by absorbing CO2 (www.exxonmobil.com/corporate/files/news, 2009). It is estimated that more than 2000 gallons of biofuel can be made from algae cultivated in 1 acre of land per year as compared to other crops like palm and sugarcane which yields less than 600 gallons per acre per year (www.exxonmobil.com/corporate/files/news, 2009). Algal biofuels are biodegradable and non toxic. The project aims to develop high yielding algal strains, to determine best production techniques using photo bioreactor and to develop system for extraction and increasing the amount of biofuel (www.exxonmobil.com/corporate/files/news, 2009). Synthetic biology has helped sequence genome of 11 microalgal strains and more than 20 cyanobacterial strains (Roessler P, 2008). Using tools of synthetic biology, metabolic pathway in algae can be altered giving rise to what is called as carbon partitioning using DNA introduced by biolistics or electroporation method and selectable markers (Roessler P, 2008). It will lead to higher accumulation of hydrocarbons which can be easily extracted. There is already a lot of competition from companies like greenshift, solazyme, Livefuel, Aquaflow, Algoil, PetroAlgae using algae as biofuel (Wagner D, 2007). Synthetic biology will help SGI and EMRE to have an edge over them.
- Balmer A & Martin P (2008) Synthetic Biology Social and Ethical challenges, www.bbsrc.ac.uk/organisation/policies/.../0806
- Benner S & Sismour A (2005) Synthetic Biology, Nature Reviews Genetics; vol 6 p.533-544
- Exxon Mobil Algae Biofuels Research and Development Program (2009), www.exxonmobil.com/corporate/files/news
- Roessler P (2008) Harnessing Carbon metabolism in photosynthetic microbes for Biofuel production, Synthetic Genomics Inc,
- Synthetic Biology influencing development (2009), Lloyd's emerging risks team report, vol 1, www.lloyds.com
- Synthetic Biology Post note (2008), Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology; p.1-4, www.parliament.uk/documents/upload
- Synthetic Biology: scope, applications and implications (2009) The Royal Academy of Engineering, www.raeng.org.uk/news/publications/list/reports
- Wagner D (2007) Biodiesel from algae oil, Mora Associates, www.moraassociates.com
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