By DINA FINE MARON of ClimateWire
Published: July 22, 2010
One day, Big Algae may be competitive with Big Oil, but as researchers search for the ideal oil-producing algae strain to grow in commercial quantities, there are still a host of uncertainties standing in the way.
The first is simply supply. A central question dominating algal biofuel conferences is whether the best oil-producing algae crop will come from strains occurring in nature, or if they will need to be genetically modified to enhance their fuel-producing potential.
If researchers choose to modify them, then the algae basking in open pools under the sun's rays will have genomes dotted with genes from foreign species. Those algae could cause problems, according to a small group of academics and researchers.
Their concerns begin with something as ephemeral as a breeze that could pick up genetically modified microalgae and carry them into nearby fields and streams to displace natural strains, alter the ecosystem, and perhaps get into the human food chain. Just what would happen then is unknown, but the uncertainty is what is keeping them up at night. When it comes to genetically modified algae, they say, no one is asking the difficult questions, so it is impossible to get any of the answers.
History shows that in general, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can be difficult to contain.
A 2008 Government Accountability Office report, for example, found there have been half a dozen documented cases where GMO were released unintentionally. "Moreover, the actual number of unauthorized releases is unknown," the report notes.
Unlike genetically modified, or GM, corn, which has been used for some 15 years, similarly altered algae are newcomers to the scene and have not been tried outdoors before. "Being a nascent industry, there are no existing standards for various aspects of algal biofuels production," said an Energy Department algae road map issued last month.