Synthetic Genomics company talks mass algae production in Imperial County

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An industrial algae production field in the Sonoran Desert.

EL CENTRO — A La Jolla biotech company with the intent to establish 100,000 acres for industrial algae production has its eye on Imperial County for at least some of that production, according to Michael Kelley, chairman of the Imperial County Board of Supervisors, who visited the company’s lab last Friday along with Supervisor Ryan Kelley.

“We both sat in a office that was filled with nothing but scientists — everyone of them had a PhD,” said Kelley. “What they talked about was expanding the algae production in Imperial County.”

The company, Synthetic Genomics, Inc., has been a pioneer in its field, creating in 2010 the first synthetic organism: a single-celled bacterium whose entire genetic code was built from scratch rather than rearranged or modified. After announcing the news, the company noted it had included an email address in the DNA should anyone who can decode the sequence want to notify the company of their achievement.

The previous year, Synthetic Genomics partnered with energy giant ExxonMobil to research algae strains for use in biofuel production.

The research has resulted in algae strains with improved photosynthetic efficiency, higher oil productivity, and the improved ability to be grown in highly saline water. Kelley, in fact, suggested the company build its algae production adjacent to the Salton Sea. He also noted the algae farms might address the threat of the exposed playa, as well as contribute to the purification of the sea and the tributaries that flow into it.

But ExxonMobil has labeled algae-based biofuel as a next-gen fuel source, being “probably further” than 25 years away before competing with fossil fuels. Maximizing the production of the lipids or oils remains an obstacle. Synthetic Genomics has focused on creating a DNA sequence that has the highest oil content per biomass-weight, according to the company’s website.

“The challenge,” explained Vijay Swarup, vice president of ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Company, in a 2016 company-published article, “is to now find and develop algae that can produce bio-oils at scale on a cost-efficient basis.”

A key factor in high production of the oils is the exposure of the algae to solar energy. The more sunshine absorbed, the more oils that can be converted to biofuel — making the Imperial Valley a competitive candidate for mass algae production.

Alternative-fuels are but one application for such algae farms, however. Protein-rich food, make-up, and other products are currently being manufactured from algae.

Currently, Imperial County already has algae being produced and harvested. Earthrise Nutrionals operates an algae farm just north of Calipatria and grows microalgae for several food products.

Synthetic Genomics has algae housing adjacent to its labs, where they grow new strains, hoping to improve the oil production capacity of the organism, as well as adapt them to particular environments.

“I was really impressed,” said Kelley. “I want to follow up with what they want to do with respect to expanding algae production in Imperial County.”

Kelley noted that he was expecting a letter from the company in the near future with more details, and would be meeting with the IID and several Imperial County department heads to discuss the opportunity.