Science Inventory

Synthetic algae and cyanobacteria: Great potential but what is the exposure risk?


Bagley, M. Synthetic algae and cyanobacteria: Great potential but what is the exposure risk? 2017 ISES Annual Meeting, RTP, North Carolina, October 15 - 19, 2017.


Advances in synthetic biology present new challenges to EPA for risk assessment. This presentation will explore these challenges in the contest of synthetic algae products, and recommend ecological exposure research that can help EPA and other regulators address some of these challenges.


Green algae and cyanobacteria (hereafter, algae) have the attractive properties of relatively simple genomes, rapid growth rates, and an ability to synthesize useful compounds using solar energy and carbon dioxide. They are attractive targets for applications of synthetic biology, as entrepreneurs seek to transform them into unicellular autotrophic “factories” for industrial chemical production, which could augment or potentially disrupt traditional production pipelines. Although initial genetic modifications were focused on optimizing the harvest of ethanol and other biofuels, commercial ventures are diversifying and climbing the value chain into industrial chemicals, specialty chemicals, and pharmaceuticals. Fueled by breakthroughs in molecular engineering, genomics, informatics and computer aided design, synthetic biology ventures have advanced rapidly and introductions of new products have the potential to overwhelm regulators’ ability to evaluate their associated environmental exposure risks. Ecologically, these exposure risks are likely to be most profound for open water algal culture ventures that lack the containment controls of closed systems. Ecological risk assessment for synthetic algae has some parallels with that of previous genetically modified organisms, but the greater scale of genomic changes presents new uncertainties that could greatly alter the risk calculus. In this talk, I will compare and contrast eco-evolutionary drivers of synthetic algae risk compared to previous genetically modified organisms and highlight key ecological exposure questions that must be evaluated for effective regulation.

Record Details:

Product Published Date: 10/19/2017
Record Last Revised: 10/20/2017
OMB Category: Other
Record ID: 337940