Monsanto makes move into algae research, partners with Sapphire

By Luke Geiver | March 08, 2011

Monsanto Co. is entering the algae business after announcing a collaborative effort with Sapphire Energy to utilize Sapphire’s algae research abilities. Monsanto hopes to discover genes that could potentially increase crop yield or reduce crop stress in one of its core products, corn, cotton or soybeans. The new algae venture is a first for Monsanto, said Kelli Powers of Monsanto’s public affairs department. “For us, we have a pipeline and obviously that first step in our pipeline is discovery,” Powers said. “We see algae research that Sapphire is doing as a promising tool to screen genes early in that discovery process and to identify promising traits that could help with yield and stress.”

The research efforts will take place at one of Sapphire’s New Mexico locations, and according to Powers the work will begin right away. “Algae is a good discovery tool for us because it has similar photosynthesis processes to other plants. They (algae strains) are pretty simple and efficient to work with, and because most algae have a growth cycle of 24 hours, it gives us a completely analyzed trait in less than five days, which makes it a pretty fast process for our researchers.”

The new research effort will focus Sapphire’s research capabilities “on some of the biggest questions facing both agriculture and energy,” said Jason Pyle, CEO of Sapphire. He said this will be done by leveraging Sappire’s algae platform and tools to improve crop yield and enhance performance.  As part of the agreement, Monsanto will make an equity investment in Sapphire although other terms of the collaboration were not disclosed.

Robb Fraley, Monsanto’s chief technology officer, said the research will help the agricultural developer find promising genes faster, and the two companies “face a common goal in looking for ways to improve upon an organism’s ability to achieve greater productivity under optimal and suboptimal environmental conditions.”

For Sapphire, the announcement with Monsanto comes only a week after the company was listed by the Wall Street Journal as one of the top 10 most promising clean technology companies. 


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