08/08/2014 03:35 pm ET | Updated Oct 08, 2014

Is Toxic Algae Good for You?

Aaron P. Bernstein via Getty Images

While the recent shutdown of Toledo's municipal water supply due to toxic algae is in the news, it seems a good opportunity to say a word or two about the growing risks that are being taken by a biotechnology industry busy at work using genetic engineering and synthetic biology techniques to create algae that will secrete oils, fuels, chemicals and compounds for all manner of commercial and industrial uses. The potential for contamination, invasiveness, toxic algae blooms and other harms have barely been considered, and the lack of regulation is shocking.

The effort to produce algae biofuels has been underway for many, many years, though you wouldn't know it given that there are still virtually none being produced at commercial scale. The hype about making "cheap, abundant fuels with nothing but sunlight and water" remains in spite of the reality on the ground.

Microalgae (single-celled, like the cyanobacteria that caused Toledo's problem) are the focus of most research efforts because under certain circumstances, they can secrete very large amounts of oil. That can then be further refined into fuels. New approaches, including genetic engineering and synthetic biology (see resources here) are being applied to create strains that are hardy enough to withstand the rigors of cultivation, resist disease, grow prolifically, pump out more oil or or oils with certain characteristics, or event to directly secrete not just oils, but hydrocarbons and a wide range of other "useful" compounds. For example, companies like Joule Unlimited have developed algae to directly secrete hydrocarbons. Algenol, is developing ethanol secreting algae. Solazyme released "Algenist", an algae-derived (using synthetic biology?) line of anti-aging skin care products. Recently, Synthetic Genomics announced commercial release of "Encapso" an algae derived drilling lubricant useful for oil and gas industries.

Algae are in fact viewed as a key "tool" for "green" production on many many industrial fronts. Producing liquid fuels that are competitive with petroleum remains challenging, but meanwhile, there are innumerable high end niche products that can fill the erstwhile profit-making void. While many have hailed the new algae production platforms as "green" industry, there are a few critics. Ecover recently launched a new synthetic algae derived "palm oil substitute." While environmental groups have long opposed palm oil, those paying close attention responded to Ecover's announcement requesting that Ecover reconsider, stating that while palm oil is indeed problematic, synthetically derived algae oil is no solution.

The hopeful hype about how algae fuels is entirely misleading, given that algae (like corn and other crops) in fact require large amounts of nutrients to grow. Phosphorus, a nutrient introduced into Lake Eerie from farm runoff, is considered responsible for the proliferation of the algae causing problems in Toledo. They love it, require it for growth, and could not proliferate without access to it.

Cultivation of algae requires lots of other inputs as well -- depending on how it is grown: For one thing, algae need lots of water and photobioreators take up a lot of space, Some have suggested cultivating them in deserts (which apparently are considered dispensable ecosystems) but of course access to water in deserts is not so easy. Algae cultivation uses a lot of energy - to keep water circulating, and for drying and extracting oils, and more. Further, algae need CO2 in order to grow. On first glance that might seem a good thing since we have overly abundant supplies of it, but in fact it is not so easy to access unless the facility is linked to the smokestack of some polluting industry. An example: Pond Biofuels in Canada is establishing a 19 million dollar "Algal Carbon Conversion" pilot project using emissions from a tar sands refinery.

The Algae Biomass Organization (industry lobby) is promoting the idea that new EPA regulations on CO2 emissions can be addressed by linking algae production to polluting facilities. They state: "Algae-derived commodities can turn CO2 regulation from a problem into an opportunity for emitters facing new regulations for CO2 reduction" We need to do away with those polluting industries like tar sands extraction, not develop processes dependent on their continuation!

The "energy return" for algae fuels still remains pathetic. By some analyses it takes seven times more energy input than is produced by the derived fuels. A 2012 review by the National Research Council concluded: the scale-up of algal biofuel production sufficient to meet at least 5 percent of U.S. demand for transportation fuels would place unsustainable demands on energy, water, and nutrients with current technologies and knowledge."

These are the reasons that we are not all driving around on algae fuels in spite of decades of hype and investment. Nonetheless policymakers seeking something to offer that sounds "good", as well as a weary and overwhelmed public that cannot filter through the hype and noise to make sense of algae fuels, has kept the cash cows milking and the smoke screens in place.

Startup companies like Sapphire Energy, Solazyme, Algenol and Synthetic Genomics have meanwhile won large scale public investment via a long history of supports through the DOE, USDA and other agencies. They have also forged partnerships with some of the biggest corporations on earth. For example, Synthetic Genomics has a partnership with ExxonMobil to develop algae fuels as well as partnering with agriculture giant Archer Daniels Midland to produce algae derived Omega 3 DHA oils. Solazyme has partnered with Chevron, UOP, Honeywell, Unilever and Dow Chemical and is providing (very expensive) algae fuels to the U.S. Navy for their efforts to "green" the military and aviation industry with algae based jet fuels. They also have a partnership with industrial agriculture giants including, Bunge, in Brazil and Archer Daniels Midland, in Iowa. Saphire Energy is producing various fuels with a large commercial scale facility (long overdue and still struggling to deliver) in New Mexico. They refer to themselves as being "at the forefront of a new green world, the intersection between synthetic biology, agriculture and energy production."

Meanwhile climate geoengineering enthusiasts are looking into stimulating algae growth using "iron fertilization" as a means to supposedly sequester large amounts of CO2 out of the atmosphere. That scheme has been in the news most recently with a fiasco involving the CEO (Russ George) of a startup company, Planktos, attempting to evade scrutiny and international legal restrictions on iron dumping by masquerading as a "salmon restoration project".

What does all of this have to do with Toledo? Questions about the potential for harms resulting from large scale cultivation of non-native, genetically engineered and/or synthetic algae have barely been considered. There is a remarkable lack of transparency regarding what companies are actually doing with algae. What is clear however is that the characteristics that are being engineered are largely the same characteristics that lead to invasiveness. Those include things like extreme hardiness, ability to cope with stresses, evade predators, disease resistance, prolific growth etc. that allow them to out-compete other species.

It is also clear that most researchers do not consider "containment" to be realistic for microalgae. So, if a tank load of microalgae engineered to secrete hydrocarbons, ethanol, industrial chemicals or even just massive quantities of some sort of oil, should get dumped accidentally into Lake Eerie, and out compete native species, what then would people in Toledo be drinking? Sure, that's a worst case scenario, but claiming it is "unlikely" is hardly reassuring. Those are the sort of "low probability, high consequence" risks that we should approach with utmost precaution, especially as a warming planet is tipping the biosphere further and further out of balance. This should be on our radar given that algae are first of all very largely responsible for the oxygen we breathe, and secondly, capable of rendering our water toxic.