(Tsingtao “green” beer)

Ben Pavlik is a student at Keck Graduate Institute (www.kgi.edu)

Last spring, Reid Snowden and I made concoction. Abhorrent to ingestion, we called our creation “algae beer.”  This was done as a independent research project under the guise of one of our professors, and was a great dual introduction to brewing and algal fermentation.

Bioethanol is currently being produced by fermentation of sugars found in plants such as sugarcane and corn. Many social concers have barred the adoption of their future use, so other feedstocks are being considered as substitutes. Algae are one of those feedstocks.

However, algae do not produce as much starch as corn, and do not have firm agricultural practices. However, there is reason to believe that algae will play a role in the future bioethanol market. Why is this so?

Algae are currently “all the rage” when it comes to liquid fuel and biodiesel. This fuel is derived from lipids, or fats within the algae. However, only one possible economically savvy model has been produced (see future post regarding – http://www.itwire.com/content/view/24203/1176/) In order to lower the cost of producing this fuel, other products from algae will have to be processed and sold. Bioethanol is one of those products. Using everything that algae have to offer is the best route towards more favorable economic models for these low-value high-volume products.

Algenol Biofuels has bet that algal ethanol will be a next generation biofuel. They use genetically modified strains which secrete ethanol into their growth media. This fuel is distilled from the closed photobioreactor and concentrated.

Green Sea

    By Benjamin Pavlik

    Ben is a master student at Keck Graduate Institute in Claremont, CA – www.kgi.edu

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     Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have been developed and used by both pharmaceutical and agricultural biotechnology industries to change the characteristics of an organism for the benefit its manipulators – i.e. increase product yields or to produce novel products with respect to the host organism.  These techniques are so revolutionary that they have bolstered the success of biotech firms such as Genentech and Amgen.  However, agricultural recombinant DNA (DNA recombined from different sources which would never occur in nature) technology is not currently accepted in practice by many countries, including the entire European Union (EU), because of the issue of “gene flow.”  This issue may produce a real barrier to the biofuels industry, and in particular for GM algae and synthetic biological systems.  Unless contained, GMOs will hurt the environments in which they arecreated to benefit.

     Past experiences in agricultural biotechnology have shown us that because the principles of population genetics and EU perspectives such as the “precautionary principle” that without a physical barrier around the GMO, we are not able to control the passing of genetically modified traits into the natural populations.  The impacts of these transmissions not only effect wild populations of similar species, but can also affect the ecology of the environment in which the transmission occurred, and therefore produce unpredictable catastrophic effects.   Even though these concepts created barriers for recombinant agriculture during the late 20th century, GMOs are now being developed for industrial use in renewable energy production.

     Metabolic engineering of bacteria and algae for the purpose of producing recombinant products has been conducted by many biofuel startups.  Many of these products have not yet gone into full-scale production, but plans are being laid.  Closed bioreactors are intended to be used to grow these cell types and contain the gene flow to the external environment.  However, these are not fool-proof scenarios.

     Due to the high transmission of water as a vector, GM marine algae entering the watershed can travel to the ocean and out-compete natural algae for resources.  Imagine a sea of algae which consumes all available nutrients to produce a thick layer of oil-rich cells on the surface of the ocean.  Because these algae may be able to genetically recombine (have sex) with natural strains, invasive traits may spread to all populations before reaching the ocean.  These are scenarios which are detrimental to riparian ecologies and the life of our oceans.  GMOs could damage the environments they seek to save.

     Further investigation is necessary to assess the effects of releasing GM algae into the environment, and the probability of this occurrence.  There are currently many organization devoted to the remediation of non-recombinant ecological takeovers by “weed” organisms (invasive species).  The Center for Invasive Plant Management (http://www.weedcenter.org/index.html ) is one such organization working to restore the ecological effects of natural plant populations.  In the future, if GM biofuel strains are accidentally released, it may be too late to form such organizations and conduct remediation.

     Future bioreactors intended to collect the energy of the sun will need improvement so as to prevent the release of genetically modified algae.  Synthetic organisms will, without question, need to be strictly contained.  We are fortunate enough to be able to prevent future ecological catastrophes due to the transmission of genetically modified organisms at this point in time.  Research is needed to assess the transmission of GM cells in the production of biofuels before full-scale implementation.  Without this, we may be shooting ourselves in the environmentally-friendly foot.

Sustainable MBA?

July 25, 2008

Recently, I came across a BNet article about obtaining an MBA under the filter of sustainable business practices. http://blogs.bnet.com/bnet1/?p=510&tag=nl.e713  Why does KGI not have any of these types of courses? 

The self-proclaimed leader in sustainable business education is Bainbridge Graduate Institute:  http://blogs.bnet.com/bnet1/?p=510&tag=nl.e713 . In looking over their program, I was intrigued.  They also offer certificates programs for those of you who are short on time, as we all are…

How does everyone feel about this?  Of course, it cannot be bad thing as long as the curriculum reinforces the reasoning behind sustainable business to an extent that exceeds sustainabilty as a “business driver.”  It seems like this is the case with their “social justice” and “environmental responsibility” themes thorughout their courses.  I like it!


One of the major drawbacks of the open air pond system for industrial scale algae growth is the engineered strain’s inability to compete with wild types. This is because the lab trained algae spend all its energy resources producing oil instead of growing as fast as possible. So what is needed is a strain that can grow fast enough to push out the native strains and still produce the desired oil.

One possible way of achieving this is to rearrange one’s thinking about algae production. Instead of viewing the algae as biomass to be harvested, one could see them as solar powered bioreactors. What I mean by this is: have the oil production as an inducible trait and view the oil production as a byproduct of an algae bioreactor. This will allow the oil production to only occur when the engineered strain is at critical mass, and after it has grown fast enough to out-compete the wild type.

Of course this idea has a few technical hurdles (such as the oil produced would need a mechanism to be excreted into the media). But I see this post as more of a brainstorming exercise rather than trying to actively generate a solution. I would be interested in what the sustainable biotech community thinks.

Macroalgal Culture

June 26, 2008

Robert I and have been discussing the issues around macroalgal culture.  He found this cool like to a patent for a cultivation truss:


I would like to know if anyone knows about species selection or condtion optimization for this type of aquaculture.  The best contact I know of for this is Greg Mitchell, at Scripps Oceanography in SD, but I dont want to bother him with basic reserach questions.

The reason that this came up was becuase Robert and I were discussing open ocean algal biofuel cultivation strategy.  Ecological issues seem to detract from the feasibilty of microalgal culture, and larger species seem to be more containable.

Any comments?

Hello Blogosphere

June 23, 2008

Hey all you sustanible biotechers,

Because we all share the urge to make this world a cleaner, more energy-efficent place for our future generations to enjoy,  voice your ideas and challenge the thoughts of others regarding how to gain ground against (hopefully reversible) impending global sickness.

I believe that sustainability issues are not addressed at KGI as they should, and this forum will gather the ideas of all interested parties so we can express this issue for all to see.  Having a class in this issue would bring new business practices to light, and teach future leaders of biotech how to manage in a sustainable manner.  

News Source:


I will function to consolidate news I feel is interesting to the group and would like others’ input.  This is kind of like a think-tank idea. 

Thanks to Cyrus for setting all of this up!




Sorry I dissappeared for a while. First there was the end of the semester with finals and all of the projects we do at KGI coming due. Then I started my summer internship. I ended up working at Genentech down in Oceanside, CA (Northern San Diego County). Now you might be asking yourself, “What the heck is Cyrus doing working at a pharma biotech company?!” Well, in looking around for internships, I realized that a lot of the opportunities in the small biofuel type startups were lab related (for the scientists). I have always considered myself an engineer and my primary interest is in large scale manufacturing. Not just what bugs to grow or the theory of fermentation or bioseperations but how do you actually run a large plant? What are the systems needed and how are every day operations managed? So when I saw an opportunity to work in the state of the art manufacturing plant of the original biotech company, I jumped at the chance. I am doing a project in data management and automation of the plant which means I get a good overview of all the systems running in the plant. In fact I can see the status in real time of all 18,000+ sensors, valves, pumps, etc in the plant and also see what they have done since the place opened. So one thing I will have a good grasp on is how you put one of these $700 million dollar plants together and that is something that all those biofuel startups will need to know when the time comes to build their plants. Besides, Genentech is a pretty cool company. It’s probably one of the only traditional medicinal biotech companies I would consider working for long term. Plus, you get tons of free food!
Stay tuned for updates. In mid August, I will be attending the annual meeting of the Society for Industrial Microbiology wich is going to have all sorts of cool workshops and talks on metabolic engineering, biofuels, and even bionanotechnology systems. There is even a couple of talks on CHO cell culture by KGI’s very own Matt Croughan. I plan on providing full coverage of cool stuff I run across there.