Nannochloropsis gaditana strain CCMP527. Photo: Provasoli-Guillard National Center for Marine Algae and Microbiota

ExxonMobil and Synthetic Genomics have announced a potential breakthrough in producing oil from algae.

Exxon, the Texas-based energy giant, and the California-based biotech company have collaborated on the promise of algae energy since 2009, when they announced a potential $600 million investment in the technology.

The latest development comes nearly a decade later, and is published in the journal Nature Biotechnology.

J. Craig Venter, the scientist known for sequencing the first human genome in 2001 and co-founder of Synthetic Genomics, said it was a major step forward for the technology’s potential.

“The SGI-ExxonMobil science teams have made significant advances over the last several years in efforts to optimize lipid production in algae,” said Venter, in a Monday statement. “This important publication today is evidence of this work, and we remain convinced that synthetic biology holds crucial answers to unlocking the potential of algae as a renewable energy source.”

The microalgae called Nannochloropsis gaditana is used industrially. Its production of the lipids can be maximized by starving it of nutrients – but that deprivation also slows its growth, paradoxically slowing production.

The latest work shows that Synthetic Genomics honed in on 20 genes that controlled for lipid production during nitrogen starvation.

By using CRISPR-Cas9, the scientists replaced 18 of the 20 transcription factors with mutated versions.

The mutant replacements increased the production of carbon to lipids from 20 percent to as much as 55 percent during the nitrogen deprivation.

The mutant strains continued to grow, as well, they report.

The advantages of an algae-from-oil market would be that algae can grow in salt water, and survive harsh conditions, the two companies said.

The lipids could be refined in conventional Exxon refineries – producing energy-dense diesel, said the companies.

However, the technology is still years away from reaching the commercial market – if it ever does advance that far, cautioned Vijay Swarup, ExxonMobil’s vice president for research and development.

“Each phase of our algae research, or any other similar project in the area of advanced biofuels, requires testing and analysis to confirm that we’re proceeding down a path toward scale and commercial viability,” said Swarup.

Venter added he was looking forward to “continued work with ExxonMobil.”

Exxon, which has publicly stated that climate change is a danger to the globe, has touted its R&D efforts to get cleaner technologies in use.

“ExxonMobil is taking action by reducing greenhouse gas emissions in its operations, helping consumers reduce their emissions, supporting research that leads to technology breakthroughs and participating in constructive dialogue on policy options,” according to its climate change policy statement.