Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Sapphire Energy Scores Huge Investment Backer Monsanto

Monsanto says that algae could be used in its gene discovery process as the first step in the development process for its major crops, including corn, soybeans and cotton. The goal would be to identify genes that make crops more productive, especially in bad conditions such as salty water.

Because algae, a simple organism, is the predecessor of land-based crops, a trait that makes it more productive or more resistant to stresses may also have the same effect in other crops.

Algae reproduces very quickly, unlike land-based crops that have to grow trunks and roots, for example, so that one could test a new trait or gene in algae within weeks, as opposed to months, said Tim Zenk, vice president of corporate affairs for Sapphire.

"It looks like we're looking for many of the same genes and traits in algae that they believe can apply to cotton or corn," Zenk said. _Checkbiotech
Fledgling algal fuels company Sapphire Energy just received a huge boost from mega-giant Monsanto Company. The collaboration will involve the use of algae as a genetic test-bed for the creation of novel strains of agricultural crops. In other words, the algae will perform the role of "guinea pig" in genetic modification research experiments meant to benefit ag crops. Sapphire will use its expertise in the high throughput testing and screening of algae, toward that end.
Monsanto hopes to discover genes that could potentially increase crop yield or reduce crop stress in one of its core products, corn, cotton or soybeans. The new algae venture is a first for Monsanto, said Kelli Powers of Monsanto’s public affairs department. “For us, we have a pipeline and obviously that first step in our pipeline is discovery,” Powers said. “We see algae research that Sapphire is doing as a promising tool to screen genes early in that discovery process and to identify promising traits that could help with yield and stress.”

The research efforts will take place at one of Sapphire’s New Mexico locations, and according to Powers the work will begin right away. “Algae is a good discovery tool for us because it has similar photosynthesis processes to other plants. They (algae strains) are pretty simple and efficient to work with, and because most algae have a growth cycle of 24 hours, it gives us a completely analyzed trait in less than five days, which makes it a pretty fast process for our researchers.”

The new research effort will focus Sapphire’s research capabilities “on some of the biggest questions facing both agriculture and energy,” said Jason Pyle, CEO of Sapphire. He said this will be done by leveraging Sappire’s algae platform and tools to improve crop yield and enhance performance. As part of the agreement, Monsanto will make an equity investment in Sapphire although other terms of the collaboration were not disclosed. _Biodiesel
Algal fuels research is still in the early stages, given the huge productivity and economic gulf between current costs of production of algal fuels, and the costs needed before the process is ready for market. But algal fuels research is expensive, requiring top scientists, engineers, and other participants. Thus the need for algal companies to branch out and attract other business, while perfecting their algal fuels processes.



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