Oil giant BP invests in microbe specialist

BP and Synthetic Genomics aim to exploit microbes on an industrial scale; research is part of an emerging field not without controversy.

Petroleum giant BP has invested in Synthetic Genomics--a company founded by geneticist J. Craig Venter--in an effort to better understand, and ultimately exploit, microbes that live underground.

Under the deal announced Wednesday, scientists from BP and Synthetic Genomics will sequence the genes of microorganisms that live in fossil fuel deposits and then try to figure out ways to exploit properties of these single-celled animals on an industrial scale. Potentially, the microbes may one day help speed the hydrocarbon formation process, create cleaner fuels or help oil companies extract more oil out of underground deposits. Currently, the industry gets only a fraction of the oil out of deposits.

Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office also recently published a patent application from Synthetic Genomics for "a minimal set of genes required to support viability of a free-living organism." Or, in other words, a set of genes that, immersed in an environment with salts and nutrients, functions like a natural microbe.

The two companies might also conduct research on biofuels. BP is investing heavily in biofuel research and it is one of the stated goals of Venter's company.

Synthetic Genomics is one of a number of companies in the emerging field of synthetic biology. In synthetic biology, scientists identify a potentially useful metabolic process found in nature and try to devise ways to replicate it in a lab.

Amyris Biotechnologies, for instance, has found a way to artificially produce a naturally occurring malaria medicine; it also hopes to make environmentally friendly jet fuel. Cambrios Technologies has identified microbial proteins that can act sort of like a glue in semiconductors. Others hope to devise synthetic proteins for breaking down plant mass into ethanol.

Venter's company grew out of an extended ocean voyage he took in the early part of the decade. Sailing around the world, he and his team began to identify several new species. Venter came to fame by cracking the human genome. He helped launch Celera Genomics but left amid management squabbles.

The field of synthetic biology is controversial. Some worry that synthetic biologists will create new forms of pathogens or organisms that, if released into the wild, will cause damage to fragile ecosystems.

The ETC Group, a public advocacy organization in Canada, two weeks ago began to try to bring attention to Synthetic Genomics' patent application.

"These monopoly claims signal the start of a high-stakes commercial race to synthesize and privatize synthetic life forms. Will Venter's company become the 'Microbesoft' of synthetic biology," said Jim Thomas, a researcher with ETC, in a recent e-mail to CNET News.com.

Synthetic Genomics has not commented publicly on ETC's claims. ETC did not reply to a recent inquiry from News.com about how Synthetic Genomics' patents differ from other genetic patents.

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