Much-hyped Venter Big Oil algae deal heads back to drawing board

UCSD alumnus and self-styled emperor of the worlds genomes recasts not so miraculous $300 million deal with ExxonMobil for genetically engineering fuel from algae, reports MIT Tech Review

As first reported here in November 2008, La Jolla's Craig Venter, the self-styled human genome king, had grand plans for altering the DNA of algae to produce a variety of so-called biofuels, hopefully to replace the world's rapidly depleting supply of oil.

According to [SAIC founder and Venter patron J. Robert] Beyster, Venter outlined his pitch at a June 2008 conference quietly hosted by San Diego real estate mogul Malin Burnham at the Evans Garage, a car museum owned by San Diego’s Evans family, owner of the Torrey Pines Inn and other local hotels.

“Craig Venter told us that he thinks genetics offers the possibility of an unusual but ingenious answer to our energy problem,” wrote Beyster.

“He believes that meaningful amounts of algae that is genetically engineered to create oil-like molecules can be grown. This was the bestseller of the conference, and he has been promoting the idea with the likes of Barack Obama, who feels that something drastic needs to be done to counter the devastating impact oil and gas monopolies are having on the economies of all the world’s countries.”

Some feared it was the beginning of a Brave New World:

Critics contend that Venter and his commercial backers will hijack the DNA code inside the microbial genomes for private gain. Pressure to appropriate the information for huge profits, they say, will grow in tandem with the world’s oil shortage.

Venter and his colleagues insist that they are depositing the code they discover into a federally sponsored computer database known as GenBank, which is freely accessible to the world’s scientific community. But Jim Thomas, research manager of ETC Group, an Ottawa-based nonprofit that has emerged as one of Venter’s major critics, argues that Venter is uniquely positioned to exploit the data for private use.

As it turns out, according to a report this week by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Technology Review, the only thing that has ended up being hijacked so far is Venter's lucrative $300 million 2009 algae development deal between his for-profit Synthetic Genomics, Inc. and oil giant ExxonMobil:

The idea behind the Exxon-Synthetic Genomics project was to sort through large numbers of algae strains, looking for ones that might produce fuel economically—or that could be easily modified with “conventional” approaches, such as making a few changes to algae’s genetic material. A year into the program, the companies announced that they had opened a big greenhouse for testing the algae at a relatively large scale.

Those efforts don’t seem to have cracked the code for cheap algae fuels.

In a new agreement between the companies, Exxon is sending Synthetic Genomics back to the lab to do more basic science.

It should be said that while the Exxon project may be taking a step back, going from production in greenhouses to bench-top research, Synthetic Genomics says it intends to keep pushing forward with its greenhouse work on its own.

It isn’t saying how much of the original $300 million it actually received from Exxon—the payments depended on hitting certain milestones. It also isn’t talking about the value of the new project with Exxon.

No matter what scientific setbacks Venter may be encountering in the land of algae, he remains a golden boy of San Diego's high tech world. SAIC's Beyster, who made his millions as a military contractor, recently announced he is giving $2.5 million to Venter's non-profit J. Craig Venter Institute, the posh new headquarters of which is soon to open at UCSD.

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Comments

Speaking of Venter's "posh new headquarters" off the UCSD campus in La Jolla at the corner of North Torrey Pines Road, the READER ought to send a photographer up there to document the massive intrusive scale of this building in its neighborhood. It looks like a battleship, jammed onto a grassy lot with its backside pushed up against a community sports field.

(UCSD/SIO has already destroyed a coastal vista from southbound La Jolla Shores Drive with a new building on the west that rises higher than the roadway. Compounding the uglification for passersby are eye-level solar panels now being installed on the roof of the structure.)

Thanks, UCSD, for two new buildings that dominate their environment rather than blend in. Aren't there design awards -- onions -- for Big Bad Neighbors?

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