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Exxon Mobil's New GMO Biofuel Venture

Goliath Enters the Algae Race

By Alex Jack

Exxon Mobil Corp., the world's largest oil company, announced this summer that it was entering the contest to develop a motor fuel from algae. Its $600 million investment dwarfed that of rival Royal Dutch Shell that already has a hundred-million-dollar stake in the algae sweepstakes and dozens of mid to small size energy concerns that are also seeking to convert the primitive life form into a clean-burning biofuel.

Exxon Mobil, which promised to invest billions of dollars more to scale up the technology and bring it to commercial production, is teaming up with Synthetic Genomics, a biotechnology company based in San Diego that is headed by J. Craig Venter, the scientist who pioneered the sequencing of the human genome. The aim of the collaboration is to genetically engineer algae that would use energy from the sun to convert carbon dioxide into oils and hydrocarbons in massive quantities.

Exxon Mobil and Synthetic Genomics are betting that naturally occurring algae are too inefficient and prohibitively expensive to produce biofuel. To ramp up GMO algae to full-scale production, they estimate, will take from five to 10 years and cost billions of dollars. "This is first and foremost a research and development program," Venter said. "We're not claiming we know the answers here."

Exxon Mobil's entry into the algae field was hailed by environmentalists. Kert Davies, research director of Greenpeace, said that if Exxon Mobil pursues the work in earnest it would have a tremendous impact on slowing climate change. "This money is enormous compared with other money that has been spent on algae," Davies said. "So it's a game-changer as far as algae."

"This is a watershed day for algae biofuels," Stephen Mayfield, an algae scientist at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, also enthused, "because one of the most sophisticated companies in the world has surveyed the entire field, and this is where they placed their bet."


The Downside of Exxon's Gamble

Forgotten in the hoopla surrounding Exxon Mobil's stunning front-page announcement was the effect its GM technology will have on the literal watersheds of the world, as well as the air we breathe, the soil we farm, and the food and water we drink. And make no mistake, Exxon's aim is not just to control the biofuels market. It clearly sees algae as the eventual replacement for petroleum that has reached a peak and will need to be replaced. Other industrial giants have also entered the algae race. This summer Dow Chemical formed a partnership with Algenol Biofuels to develop a $50 million, pilot project to transfer ethanol technology to blue-green algae cells. Also Solix Biofuels sealed a $17 million deal with Shanghai Alliance Investment Ltd and a consortium of British and American-Indian petroleum and energy companies to construct a demonstration-scale algae facility. Algae is now positioned as the future energy source of choice for the world's transportation fleet, including jet fuel, commercial and home heating oil, and other uses. Hydrogen, the darling of the auto industry just a few years ago, is quickly fading as the leading contender for these laurels.

No one knows what kind of health and environmental effects genetically engineered algae will have on ecosystems. As one of the most primitive life forms, algae is at the bottom of the global food chain and quickly works its way up to virtually all life forms, from viruses and bacteria to insects, birds, reptiles, mammals, and humans. Exxon has not said whether its transgenic algae will be grown in open ponds or closed "photobioreactors." But in either case, there is no way that the world's largest oil company can keep billions of barrels of algae-based biofuel from contaminating the environment.  Genetic material from GM algae will inevitably get into the water supply, the soil, and the atmosphere.  This reckless, untested experiment in refashioning the genetic landscape to address global warming and the energy crisis may be well intentioned. But it is fraught with peril and has all the earmarks of a global catastrophe.

From a biological perspective, algae are the planet's primal ancestor. From the ancient ocean, they gave rise to the entire line of plant evolution from single cell organisms to sea moss, seaweed, primitive land plants, shrubs, flowers, trees, and grasses. To the extent that animal species evolved by eating newly emerging plant species, algae are also humanity's oldest progenitor. Geologically, algae transformed the planet by consuming carbon dioxide and producing oxygen, hence creating over eons the earth's original atmosphere. Today, 70 percent of the oxygen is still produced by algae. In the ocean, algae and shells form the basis for the world's coral reefs that are indispensable for sheltering millions of species of fish and other sea life. Algae govern not only the air and water but life on earth itself through photosynthesis, rainfall, the development of lichens, and the creation of humus that create fertile layers of soil on which all terrestrial creatures, including human beings, depend.

Developing genetically engineered algae constitutes potentially the greatest environmental catastrophe imaginable. As David Bayless, a researcher at Ohio University warned, "You could destroy a whole ecosystem" with GM algae. It could create oil slicks, lead to devastating algae blooms that choke oxygen out of the water and kill plants and animals, and give rise to flammable waterways.

In contrast to GM algae, naturally occurring algae still hold tremendous promise as a clean, natural biofuel. There is no reason to give up and bypass traditional breeding and conversion technologies and jump headlong into bioengineering. Exxon Mobil's move in this direction would seem to be dictated by a drive to monopolize the field (as GM life forms are patentable), eliminate competition, and control the planet's energy resources. In short, this appears to be a clever ploy under the cover of Green Energy to gamble with the genetic heritage of the world, including our own species, for windfall profits, the same strategy Exxon Mobil and the petroleum industry have been pursuing for many years.

Alex Jack is president of Amberwaves, a grassroots organization founded in 2001 to help protect rice, wheat, and other essential foods from genetic engineering, climate change, and other threats. His books include Saving Organic Rice, Imagine a World Without Monarch Butterflies, and The Cancer Prevention Diet.
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