New varieties of wheat, oats and barley are constantly being produced to meet the world’s demands for grains that can grow faster, be hardier and withstand pests and drought. Apparently the world needs better-cultivated algae seed as well. And while algae may sound like an obscure plant to be cultivating, according to Nellya Litae, VP of business development at Israeli company TransAlgae, it makes perfect sense.
TransAlgae, she says, has set its sights on becoming the Monsanto of algae seed, minus of course the somewhat negative environmental rap that the world’s leading producer of genetically engineered seeds has had in recent years. Based on the research of Prof. Jonathan Gressel from the Weizmann Institute of Science, TransAlgae has already produced a handful of genetically altered algae strains to meet the needs of food for fish, and biomass for biofuel.
Algae are used as an alternative and possibly healthier feedstock than fish parts in fish farms (aquaculture) and are also billed as one of the best feedstocks for creating plant-based biofuel. The company is ready to commercialize its algae seed product and has signed a memorandum of understanding with Endicott Biofuels in Texas, to better refine biomass oil to biodiesel.
In the future, perhaps the company will enter the smaller, niche, nutraceutical market. (Nutraceutical, a term combining the words ‘nutrition’ and ‘pharmaceutical,’ is a food or food product that provides health and medical benefits, including the prevention and treatment of disease.)
Programmed to self-destruct, if necessary
With expertise in plant herbicide resistance, American-Israeli Gressel, who won this year’s Israel Prize, the highest award in the country, for his work in agriculture, founded TransAlgae in 2008 with two colleagues. After engineering the molecular mechanisms that allow the control of parasitic weeds in agriculture, especially Striga weeds, and commercializing his solution in Africa, Gressel decided to use his expertise to produce superior, genetically modified algae that could be grown in both indoor and outdoor reactors.
Litae explains the problem with algae farming: “Algae suffer from pests and diseases just like plants do, but they aren’t usual plants. They also suffer from contamination, and are especially sensitive to contamination from other types of ‘wild’ airborne algae. Basically, if you have a pond with one type, within 24 hours you can visit the site and find an entirely different type growing there.”
The doubling of its numbers in a day is good news for microalgae’s applications in biofuel and feed, but not when other species join the ‘pool party.’ They are also susceptible to bacteria and viruses, which can quickly wipe out entire ‘crops.’ TransAlgae was created as a commercial company to produce hardier varieties of microalgae – those that are resistant to take-over from other algae and bacteria, so that harvesting can continue unabated – and generate profits.
To quell any fears that the genetically engineered variety might enact a hostile take-over in the wild, Gressel has programmed his algae (originating from an undisclosed wild source) to self-destruct if there should be a spill or if the algae should leak into a lake or the sea. When activated, this ‘safety switch’ gene causes the algae to die within six hours.
Like in farming, “You can’t just take plants from the wild and expect them to be able to deliver the results of a crop,” says Litae referring to the genetically engineered history of cultivated wheat and corn.
Addressing limited resources
With its seed developed to be compatible with a specific bioreactor built by TransAlgae, the company plans to offer farms not only the algae, but also an optimal medium and system for growing it. TransAlgae is also ready to work one-on-one with clients and strategic partners, developing personalized algae seed for them that will thrive in customized reactors, conditions and climates, at temperatures ranging from 20 to 35 degrees Celsius.
As part of an effort to solve the problems of a planet with an ever-increasing water shortage, the system works with seawater. While it’s easier to grow algae in fresh water, Litae stresses that “one of the things we address is water resource limitation.
“We do develop some growth systems, but that’s not our main focus. First is the generation of genetically modified algae to suit a specific growth system. But a breeding company should be able to develop algae that will suit any growth system – open ponds, or closed bioreactors, or closed systems, or different clients. We want to be engineering algae on demand,” she says.
Based in central Israel in the Weizmann Science Park in Rehovot, TransAlgae employs a staff of 22, including two business people in a US office in Ohio. Private investors from the US have contributed $6 million in funding to TransAlgae, and company representatives were heading to California at the end of April to secure more funding, in the range of $5-6 million, via the California Israel Chamber of Commerce mission.
Among the company advisors is Isaac Berzin, Israel’s algae man, who provides consulting on a friendly basis. Noam Gressel, the son of Gressel, also works for TransAlgae. Noam is a venture partner in Greylock Partners, a US firm with offices in Israel, and also runs Assif Strategies, a local green consulting business.
To date TransAlgae has signed an MOU with Israel’s largest fish feed producer to meet the demands of both the growing Asian fish market and the world market.
Anticipating that sales will begin in the next six months or so, TransAlgae aspires to be a billion dollar company. Meanwhile, it’s taking on the world one algae seed at a time.
(This story was first published on ISRAEL21c – www.israel21c.org)