Tackling Oil Spills
Modular Genetics recently received NSF funding to apply synthetic biology for production of biodispersants—biologically produced, potentially less toxic alternatives to dispersants like Corexit®, which was used for the recent BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill but has been banned from use elsewhere in the world.
Modular Genetics and its research partners at Columbia University, Iowa State University, and Louisiana State University were awarded a one-year $200,000 grant to support production and testing of biodispersants based on soybean feedstocks. The company is applying its in-house automated system for microbial-strain engineering to “rapidly develop a collection of novel, highly engineered microbes that can synthesize biodispersants,” notes Kevin Jarrell, Ph.D., CEO and co-founder.
Modular biodispersants are intended to draw on underutilized agricultural waste material and are expected to be more readily biodegradable and less toxic than the chemical dispersants currently used, according to Dr. Jarrell, who highlights again the necessity of computer-aided design and high throughput for commercial synthetic biology efforts.
“Modular has written over 300,000 lines of software code to allow us to design and engineer genes, proteins, and microorganisms. The software interacts with a robotic system that does the physical manipulation required to produce the specialty chemicals we’re aiming for. We then apply high-throughput testing to see if we’ve succeeded in creating organisms that can convert agricultural material into high-value industrial products.”
Ultimately the goal is to render green products “made from totally renewable materials by engineered organisms that are purified with environmentally clean methods—potentially using just energy, water, and alcohol,” Dr. Jarrell says.
As all these synthetic biology companies note, commercial deployment is, in fact, either already well near commercialization or actually under way. Amyris has applied its synthetic biology platform to create microbial strains that produce artemisinic acid, a precursor of the antimalarial compound artemisinin. The company bestowed a royalty-free license to the technology to Sanofi-Aventis which intends to distribute artemisinin-based antimalarials by 2012.