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Biosphere imbalance: should we worry about engineering algae for biofuels?

Posting in Energy

Hundreds of scientists and dozens of companies are hard at work to engineer algae to make green fuel. Are they disrupting Mother Nature's equilibrium?

The Great American Algae Rush is in full swing.

Dozens of companies and hundreds of scientists are working hard to engineer algae to produce green -- literally and figuratively -- fuel.

The endeavor is at the crossroads of energy and science, and the trend is spreading worldwide.Why? Because some algae strains can produce 10 or more times more fuel per acre than the corn that is used to make ethanol, or the soybeans used to make biodiesel.

Better still, you can grow algae on arid land and in brackish water, which avoids competing with food production, unlike the corn and soybeans that coat much of the Midwest's farmland.

Best of all: algae consume carbon dioxide, combating greenhouse gas emissions.

But a new profile of the industry in the New York Times demonstrates that this technology has its share of pitfalls.

For one, efforts to engineer and manipulate the organisms has environmentalists concerned because algae are the base of the marine food chain.

For example: Screw up and over-engineer a strain, and suddenly you have an organism that's out of whack with the biosphere, stripping water of its oxygen and harming fish -- and maybe humans -- in the process.

But supporters say there's nothing to worry about, because an organism out of whack means its defenses are, too.

Quoted in the article is Sapphire Energy co-founder Stephen Mayfield and Synthetic Genomics founder J. Craig Venter (the guy behind the first self-replicating synthetic cell), who are at odds over the risk of engineered algae escaping into the wild.

Venter says algae should be engineered with a "suicide gene" to shut down if they escape.

Mayfield says he's not losing sleep over it. His three-year old company has raised $100 million from investors, including Bill Gates. It is also the recipient of $100 million in federal financing to build a demonstration project consisting of 300 acres of open ponds in New Mexico.

There's no doubt that the topic is a heated one. Take a gander at recent articles about algae right here on SmartPlanet:

Just look at that diversity! Algae can impact our environment, consumer electronics, cars, military -- you name it.

But the debate really comes down to this: like genetically modified (GM) food -- such as Roundup Ready soybeans -- should we be concerned that scientists are tinkering with Mother Nature?

Or simply: is it really sustainable to tip nature's scales so drastically?

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Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure