Steve LeVine’s recent Foreign Policy blog suggests that the highly anticipated results from the 2009 big bucks alliance between ExxonMobil and Dr. Craig Ventor’s Synthetic Genomics (SGI) may be subject to some serious growing pains – the pains of growing natural algal strains with sufficient lipid content to become serious contenders for fuel.

Based on Dr. Ventor’s remarks at the New America Foundation conference in Washington, D.C., according to LeVine, Ventor’s scientific team and ExxonMobil have yet to find naturally occurring algae strains that can be converted into a commercial-scale biofuel, and Ventor suggested that the answer is in the creation of a man-made strain.

The terms of the $600 million alliance between SGI and ExxonMobil apparently preclude a fully synthetic approach, so Ventor is in dialog with Exxon about updating the agreement, which would possibly require more investment, although Exxon is denying that such a conclusion has been reached.

In the email exchange between LeVine and Venter, the SGI CEO and lead scientist said that “the alliance with Exxon is ongoing and is still exploring a variety of options for the best means to handle algae for biofuel development (and that what he said at the conference was that) natural strains of algae will not get us to where we need to be in terms of scale of production for a viable alternative fuel and that is being proven. Genetic engineering/manipulation of native strains is currently the best/fastest/most cost effective way to deal with algae to get them to produce lipids, and SGI and Exxon continue to work on this. I personally believe that ultimately we will need to explore a fully synthetically constructed algae cell (and SGI is pursuing this with internal funding) to get us to the necessary levels of production of algae but that is not a part of the Exxon Mobil/SGI alliance currently. I did say and I do hope that it might be something that SGI and Exxon work on together.”