Monsanto dips into algae

Monsanto acquired a stake in Sapphire Energy, a San Diego–based algae fuel company known for its prominent backers, including Bill Gates’s firm Cascade Investment, in Kirkland, Washington, and the Wellcome Trust, in London. Through the deal (figures were not disclosed), the St. Louis agriculture giant gains access to Sapphire’s expertise and technology for isolating algal traits that could be applied to agricultural genetic research. Algae share photosynthetic pathways with agricultural plants but their shorter life cycles speed up testing. That should allow the partnership to complete analyses of genetic traits in less than five days, according to Monsanto spokesperson Kelli Powers. “We’re interested in gene leads that could ultimately help accelerate our yield-and-stress platform,” Powers adds. Because green algae are single-celled, says plant biologist Wim Vermaas of Arizona State University in Tempe, they will be useful for examining traits that shape plant-wide factors such as photosynthesis or heat resistance—something harder to do in yeast or fungi model systems. Algae are less useful for studying signals that determine the height of a corn stalk or the way its roots develop, as they lack the necessary intracellular machinery. Algae could also be used in livestock feed, Vermaas says. Sapphire, like other algae biofuels firms, is also on the lookout for alternative revenue streams, its CEO Jason Pyle told Biofuels Digest, and Monsanto may offer those.

First published by Nature Biotechnology: [html] [pdf].