ExxonMobil Partners with Synthetic Genomics to Develop Algal Biofuels

Synthetic Genomics, Inc. (SGI) is a San Diego biotech company that develops biofuels using genetic engineering and other genomic and microbiological techniques.

Last month SGI announced that it has entered a multi-year research and development agreement with ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Company (EMRE) to develop next generation biofuels using photosynthetic algae. According to SGI’s press release, total funding for R & D and milestone payments could total more than $300 million. 

SGI will use its proprietary tools and technologies in genomics, metagenomics, synthetic genomics and genome engineering to develop superior strains of algae for commercial scale production of biofuels.  SGI owns several pending patent applications relating to these tools and technologies. 

U.S. Application No. 2007/0264688 (‘688 application) is entitled “Synthetic genomes” and is directed to methods of constructing synthetic genomes and introducing them into vesicles (cells or synthetic membrane-bound “cells”). 

The ‘688 application describes generating small nucleic acid fragments, assembling them into cassettes, cloning the cassettes, assembling the cassettes into a genome, and transferring the synthetic genome into a biochemical system.  The end products produced by the biochemical systems have various applications such as energy sources (e.g., hydrogen or ethanol), therapeutics and industrial polymers.

According to the ‘688 application, selection and construction of synthetic genome sequences (as opposed to conventional genetic engineering techniques) allows for easier manipulation of genetic sequences and construction of novel organisms and biological systems.

U.S. Application No. 2007/0269862 (‘862 application) is directed to methods for installing a genome into a cell or cell-like system.  The genome may comprise supercoiled nucleic acid molecules (102) with scaffolding proteins (104).  The nucleic acids may also have ribosomes (106).

The supercoiled nucleic acid molecules (102) may be accompanied by small molecules (108) and single stranded nucleic acid molecules (110).  The genomes are introduced into a membrane bound aqueous volume (112) such as a lipid vesicle.

Claim 1 of the ‘862 application is rather broad:

1.  A method for making a synthetic cell, the method comprising:

obtaining a genome that is not within a cell; and

introducing the genome into a cell or cell-like system.

U.S. Application No. 2009/0176280 is directed to a method for isothermal amplification of small amounts of DNA or cell-free cloning of the DNA.

Other SGI pending applications include U.S. Application Pub. No. 2007/0037196 and U.S. Application Pub. No. 2007/0037197 (relating to in vitro methods for joining two double-stranded DNA molecules) and U.S. Application No. 2007/0122826 (relating to a minimal essential gene set that codes for a free-living organism).

One theme that runs throughout SGI’s portfolio of patent applications is impatience with the limits of existing genetic engineering methods and a desire for better techniques to shatter those limits, which SGI may have found in its synthetic genome technology.  This “Description of the Related Art” from the ‘688 application captures that sentiment:

Conventional genetic engineering techniques are limited to allowing manipulation of existing sequences.  It would thus be desirable to have the ability to implement dramatic alterations and arrangements of genetic content, beyond that made possible by conventional techniques.  Consequently, there is a need for synthetic genomes.

Eric Lane Avatar

Eric Lane

Eric Lane, the founder and principal of Green Patent Law, is an intellectual property lawyer and registered U.S. patent attorney in New York and is a member of the bar in New York and California. Eric has more than two decades of experience working with wind, solar PV, CSP, biofuels, and geothermal, energy storage technologies, carbon capture and sequestration, medical devices, data communications, mechanical, chemical, internet and software.