by David Schwartz

We continue with the conclusion of our interview with Dr. Stephen Mayfield…
(to read Part 1, click here )

Do you have a concern about genetic engineering? Is there a dark side that you think has a valid risk that needs to be addressed?

No. The short answer to that is absolutely not. There are so many pathogens out in the world that have spent a billion years evolving that eat you, that eat me, that eat everything. I just spent a week down in Panama, and we went on a hike into the jungle. I walked 20 feet into that jungle and was bitten by more things than I have ever seen in my life—giant black wasps, mosquitos, noseeums. They’re not genetically modified organisms. These were just guys waiting to eat me. That’s what all pathogens are.

So, are there legitimate concerns about the bioenergy industry and what it’s going to do to the environment? Absolutely! What are those concerns? Are we really willing to change 30 million acres of whatever it is now, whether it’s desert, whether it’s waste farmland, whether it’s tidal marsh…are we really willing to modify those to grow algae or any other bioenergy crop so that we can drive cars and air condition our houses? That’s a concern and that’s one we should be discussing.

If we put a GMO into those ponds, are they going to escape and get out and reek havoc in the world? No. No how. No way. No chance. That’s the hubris of man to think that we are clever enough that we can design something that nature hasn’t already designed. Anything that could be designed has been designed by nature. It had three billion years to do it. If we could design an algae that would take over the environment and kill every other, it would have designed itself a long time ago and done just that. But that’s not the way that biology works. So we have this sort of horror movie idea that we are going to create a little monster that’s gonna eat us.

The truth of the matter is all those monsters are already out there, they were already created by evolution and by biology, and they already are eating us. That’s what malaria is, that’s what bacteria are, that’s what viruses are. They’ve already been created; they are already doing it.

Still not sure whether you are optimistic or pessimistic about the future. Could you confuse me a little more?

Okay here are my views right now. I’m old enough and I’ve been around long enough to see that we are headed off a cliff if we do not do something in the next ten years, almost for certain in the next twenty years, to change the energy landscape. We are going to go from eight billion people on the planet to two billion—quick. And that is going to be the ugliest drop you have ever imagined. If we don’t find new energy sources the chances of that are pretty good.

Modern agriculture is run by fossil fuel. It’s how we feed the world. There will be seven billion people in 2011. The only way we keep seven billion people alive on this planet is because of fossil fuel, turned into fertilizer, made into food. When that starts to deplete and gets more expensive, and we start to put less fertilizer on plants, and the price of food starts to go up, we are going to start to have social disruption—and loss of life—on a massive scale. The population is going to go down.

So, what I’m trying to do is say, “Hey, let’s try to make this a smooth transition. Let’s not just run through all of our fossil fuel and then drop off that cliff. Let’s think now about how we start to integrate, how we start to incorporate bioenergy and sustainable alternative fuels into this so that we don’t have to have this ugly and catastrophic drop that looks like it’s going to come.

Algae cultures start in these incubation tanks in the research building at the Niland facility. Here, researchers can select promising strains to seed larger outdoor growing ponds.
Photo: Jim Demattia

Let’s say the USDA, DOE and EPA were to ask you to draft a policy, or set of guidelines, for algal genetic engineering. What do you think would be the pillars of that policy?

I think number one should be that we need to define what a GMO is, which we have not done yet, and that we have to define classes of GMOs. Because I think that if I take an algae and I select it just to make better lipids—I haven’t introduced new genes into it, I’ve simply modified the ones that are there—I think that has a very low possibility of doing anything bad to the environment. So that is kind of the lowest level.

But if I were to stick in a brand new gene that is a toxin…well, OK, that’s a different ball game. Now I’ve introduced something that could potentially do harm if it got out because a lot of things eat algae.

So I want to treat those two things differently, and right now they’re not. Right now if you do any modification, you’ve suddenly passed some severe window. What we need to do is logically go through and ask, OK, what do we want to do to these things, and then within that range, which ones are likely to have little impact, and which ones might have a bigger impact, because the ones that might have a bigger impact we want to be much more careful with. And the ones that are unlikely to have any impact, we probably want to let those things go through.

By having the same size filter for all of these things, we’re going to slow the progress of the entire fuel process, and I don’t think that’s a very good idea. So that’s first and foremost—let’s define these things.

The other thing that I see, which has already been done out there, and I’m in the press as saying this is a really bad idea, is bringing in non-native species. There is a fantastically sad history in the world of taking a species from one part of the globe and introducing it somewhere else. Just ask the Australians how they’re doing with their king toads and their rabbits and their rats and the rest of the stuff that came down there and wiped out entire eco systems. And yet, amazingly enough, people don’t protest that, but they do protest if you take a native species and modify one gene in it.

If I take a native species and I modify one gene, I have made a one out of thirty thousand alteration to it—a tiny fraction of a percent. On the other hand, if I bring in a new species, with 30,000 genes, I’ve got 30,000 new genes into play in that environment. So I’m much more concerned about bringing in non-native species and the potential that those have to do damage, than I am about taking a native species and genetically modifying it to get a better biofuel profile.

If I were the USDA, I would quickly separate those two things. And then I’d start to put layers on. And the most important thing, I’d start to define what a GMO means. In my mind, if you do mutagenesis and selection, you have the same probability of introducing a new gene that could be just as devastating to the environment as if you went out and took a gene from one organism and transferred it in to another. Same potential’s there. I don’t know why people think they are different.

What has to come together for these clarifications to happen?

I think what has to happen is USDA has to go over and look at what NIH has done. NIH did a fantastic job with this, because in biomedical research these things were accepted right from the get-go. They simply stepped in and said, “OK, we are going to have different layers. We’re going to have Biological Safety Levels 1, 2, 3 and 4. And if you’re going to work with a nasty pathogen, that’s BSL-4, and you’re going to be in a contained lab. But if you’re going to work with E. coli and put in a plasmid, that’s BSL-1, and we’re going to let you do that on the bench.”

Same thing should be true for algae, exactly the same levels. It’s already been invented. We have a fantastic history of forty years of transgenic organisms regulated by NIH and you go and try to find an adverse event…there are very few. The few that are there have been people who have been working on viruses using poor lab practices. But that has nothing to do with GMOs.

Who’s responsibility is it to get this moving?

USDA has got to drive this. They will eventually step forward as soon as this becomes a real opportunity for them to create new agriculture and new jobs.

EPA and USDA are the two groups that do regulation. DOE doesn’t. The difference is, EPA are excluders. Their function is, “You’re causing trouble to your neighbors. We’re going to come in and shut down your plant, or make you clean it up or whatever.”

USDA has a completely different approach, which is: “Agriculture is a little messy. We know cows poop and chickens poop, but that is how we make food and it creates jobs. So what we are going to do is try and mitigate some of the bad things, but make sure that we allow jobs to go forward and food to be produced.” And so USDA’s got the right attitude for bioenergy, because it is as important as food.

Mike Mendez in Sapphire Energy lab

How did Sapphire Energy get started?

I had started a company called Rincon Pharmaceuticals, to make therapeutic proteins and algae, and from that I had gone up and talked to a group called Arch Ventures, trying to get second tier funding. They came back to me and said they really liked our technology but were not so fond of Rincon and not so certain about therapeutic proteins. Then they asked me if I had ever considered doing genetics in algae for biofuels.

And I said, “Yeah, of course. I’m funded by the DOE. I’ve worked on this already. If you guys want to start a company, let’s talk about it.”

So they said, “We want to bring down this very technically savvy guy named Mike Mendez, who’s got a great history of doing high throughput screens and genetics for the biomedical side of things.”

Mike had actually made a mouse, called the Xeno Mouse, where he put human antibody genes into a mouse so that when you injected it with a protein it didn’t make mice antibodies, it made human antibodies—an unbelievable tour de force of molecular engineering. And Mike was available, and here in San Diego. And Arch said, “What if we just stuck Mike in the back of your lab for a little while and see if we can take his industrial processes and apply them to your algae. It will be our test case.”

And I said, “That sounds like a good idea to me.” So they did.

So several us of started the company, Sapphire Energy, and we all chipped in a little bit of money to get it going. Mike and three post docs set up in the back of my lab, and Jason Pyle was running the business side, but from up in the San Francisco Bay Area. I was over at Scripps Research Institute at the time. And within about six months Mike reported, “Not only can you do industrial processes with algae, it actually works better than many other system I’ve seen. I’ve generated 2000 different transgenic strains in six months!”

So the Arch guys said, “Great. We’re going to introduce you to the Welcome Trust, and we’re going to introduce you to Bill Gates and Cascade.” And we went up and talked to them and they said, “This is fantastic. We’re in.”

So they invested about $100 million bucks and that’s what really launched Sapphire.

One of the proudest things that I can say for everything I’ve done, is that my technology started a company that now employees 140 people, and those are 140 really good paying jobs in a really bad economy.

How are you involved with Sapphire currently?

I’m still one of their scientific advisors. (He’s actually Chairman of Sapphire’s Scientific Advisory Board.) With 140 employees, my voice doesn’t quite carry the same weight as it used to when there were just four of us. But I still go over there and talk to them. I listen to what they’re doing in science and try to give them the best advice I can. But, to be honest, they’ve sort of blown past my level of expertise. They’ve got really good guys in there now at every level. So the main thing I do is listen in amazement and say, “Wow, you guys did that? That’s great!”