One day, Big Algae may be competitive with Big Oil, but as researchers search for the ideal oil-producing algae strain to grow in commercial quantities, there are still a host of uncertainties standing in the way.
The first is simply supply. A central question dominating algal biofuel conferences is whether the best oil-producing algae crop will come from strains occurring in nature, or if they will need to be genetically modified to enhance their fuel-producing potential.
If researchers choose to modify them, then the algae basking in open pools under the sun's rays will have genomes dotted with genes from foreign species. Those algae could cause problems, according to a small group of academics and researchers.
Their concerns begin with something as ephemeral as a breeze that could pick up genetically modified microalgae and carry them into nearby fields and streams to displace natural strains, alter the ecosystem, and perhaps get into the human food chain. Just what would happen then is unknown, but the uncertainty is what is keeping them up at night. When it comes to genetically modified algae, they say, no one is asking the difficult questions, so it is impossible to get any of the answers.
History shows that in general, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can be difficult to contain.
A 2008 Government Accountability Office report, for example, found there have been half a dozen documented cases where GMO were released unintentionally. "Moreover, the actual number of unauthorized releases is unknown," the report notes.
Unlike genetically modified, or GM, corn, which has been used for some 15 years, similarly altered algae are newcomers to the scene and have not been tried outdoors before. "Being a nascent industry, there are no existing standards for various aspects of algal biofuels production," said an Energy Department algae road map issued last month.
No single regulator
Currently, all genetically modified organisms are primarily regulated under a splintered regulatory system overseen by U.S. EPA, the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration. There is no single body in charge of GMO oversight, according to Mark Duvall, a lawyer who works on these issues at Beveridge & Diamond PCs.
But some researchers and energy insiders fear that even if there were a standard set of regulations in place, that may not be enough to minimize the risks if GM algae were grown in outdoor ponds. "The reality is that algae escapes. Algae is everywhere, and algae is not something that is easily contained," energy consultant David Haberman told a biotechnology conference last month.
"It's going to get out," he warned. 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.
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.
Currently, the Obama administration is approaching the threshold for answering such questions. It has poured tens of millions of dollars on algae-to-biofuel research, some of which has directly financed genetic modification work. And many companies believe the only way to grow enough algae to go commercial with fuels from the single-celled organisms would be to bring operations outdoors into open-air ponds.
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.
But Darzins, who helped craft the Energy Department's algae road map and also received some of DOE's grant money to study algae for biofuel purposes last month, says there is ample time to get these studies done.
"Given the fact that algal biofuels won't be commercialized for maybe another 10 years or something like that, there is time to do those risk assessments and those environmental assessments," he said.
Push from investors, concerns about a 'backlash'
Waiting to answer these questions, however, does not make good economic sense, said Evan Smith, co-founder of Verno Systems, a Seattle-based consulting firm that looks at financial strategies for advanced biofuels. "We tell our clients, if you're going to go invest in algae, be out ahead of the issue," he said.
If companies do not take the time to educate the public and regulators about potential risks and the current state of the technology, they run the risk of a "serious backlash from the public and from advocacy groups and eventually from regulators that could shut down these projects" in the event anything goes wrong, he said.
Such strains from the lab have already leaked out into the environment in small quantities, said Lissa Morgenthaler-Jones, CEO and co-founder of Livefuels Inc., a California-based company working on turning natural strains of algae into biofuels.
"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.
Isaac Berzin, a chemical engineer who in 2001 founded the first algae-to-biofuel company, GreenFuel Technologies Corp., does not think such strains have escaped the lab yet, but he says it is possible, and likely only a matter of time. "Of course it's going to leak, because people make mistakes," said Berzin.
The answer to that problem -- 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."
Israeli company TransAlgae Ltd., however, says it has a patent pending on such work. 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.
While Stephen Mayfield, the director of the San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology, 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."
Mayfield is heading up some of the genetic modification research inside a laboratory environment that received a recent infusion of DOE cash and is also the founder of Sapphire Energy Inc., a San Diego-based algae biofuel company that plans to break ground on the 300 acres of large-scale open-air algae ponds this fall.
But Sapphire Energy, which works with GM algae in its laboratories, says the algae that will be grown in its open-air ponds will be solely of the natural variety -- "bred between the same species to enable traits, whether that be crop protection or the ability to withstand temperature variances, adaptability to salt water, pH or other conditions," according to Tim Zenk, vice president of corporate affairs for the company.
The group's environment impact statement emphasizes that the algae in its ponds do not use any recombinant DNA and therefore do not meet the definition of a "genetically modified organism."
'One crop a day'
Still, worries remain that if researchers eventually move to give genetically modified algae an audition in open ponds, they could survive and multiply rapidly. "The tremendous rate of growth translates to spreading any mistake rapidly," said Gerry Groenewold, the director of the Energy and Environmental Research Center at the University of North Dakota.
Algae replicate much more quickly than other GMO crops, echoed Livefuels' Morgenthaler-Jones. "With corn, you can expect one crop a year, but with algae, you could get one crop a day."
Citing algae's tremendous abilities to adapt to any environment, Berzin said he is not so sure these strains would not be able to make it in the wild. "You know where you start," he said, in terms of what the algae looked like in your ponds, "but you don't know where you are ending. Algae adapt to their environment. Once you release it into the environment, guess what? They change. They get used to the worst toxins known to man," he warned.
Algae have been known to grow inside smokestack cooling towers, he said, hampering the towers' function and surviving their tough environment.
The fact that researchers have amplified particular traits in microalgae does not automatically translate into a risk, warned Matt Carr, managing director of policy at the Biotechnology Industry Organization. "We take issue with this assumption that there is something inherently dangerous about biotechnology as a tool for engineering algae for industrial production."
Carr, alongside Mary Rosenthal, the executive director of the Algal Biomass Organization, believes there are enough safeguards in place through the existing federal regulations to address any safety questions and calls for the appropriate risk assessments and environmental impact statements.
"My thought is that as we continue forward on the federal coordinated framework for regulation of biotechnology, there will be appropriate risk assessments put forth," Rosenthal said. "Existing framework takes into consideration those risks and the requirements to mitigate those risks," she said.
Mayfield believes that funds and concerns would be better aimed at studying what he says are more pressing risks, like bringing algae indigenous to one area of the country to another area of the country to be studied. In the event of a spill, he said, those algae could spread rapidly.
Will industry wait for a green light?
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."
Besides that, no one has yet put up the cash for such a risk assessment. Though experts are not in agreement about whether or not a formal risk assessment needs to take place now, they do agree that if it is conducted, it should be done by the government, which is shoring up much of this research, or by an independent third party.
But no matter which way the industry's pendulum swings in the long run on GM algae, the risk should be explored -- and soon, said Berzin.
"I can tell you, knowing the industry very well, that it won't wait for a green light," he said. Researchers may move their research out of the lab and into the field sooner than expected. If not in the United States, researchers may try this out in Africa or China, he warned.
"We live on a small planet, so it doesn't matter if disaster comes from Africa or China or New York. We are all going to be affected when it happens. That's why you need to go into this with your eyes open and make sure the public is informed."