Venter's Synthetic Genomics Adds $8M for Palm Oil Research

Craig Venter’s startup Synthetic Genomics has raised RM28.2 million, or $8 million, from Malaysian conglomerate Genting Group, which bought a million shares of the company, The Star reports. Genting has been working with Venter’s La Jolla, Calif.-based startup since 2007, when its Asiatic Centre for Genome Technology unit partnered with Synthetic Genomics to sequence the oil palm genome.

That partnership has already yielded some initial results and earlier this year the joint venture announced that it had completed a first draft of the palm oil genome, which has about 1.8 billion base pairs. The companies have also started to sequence jathropa, another biofuel feedstock popular in Southeast Asia. The hope is that by understanding and controlling the genomes of these feedstocks, more fuel can be grown more efficiently, which is a huge issue as swaths of the Indonesian rain forests are slashed to make room for more biomass plantations.

Through it subsidiaries, Genting has been rapidly growing its biofuel business. The Asiatic Development Berhad, which owns Asiatic Centre for Genome Technology, has greatly expanded its palm oil stakes through an aggressive series of acquisitions since the 1980s. The company currently controls 66,000 hectares of farmland in Malaysia with five oil mills and through a joint venture has development access to over 98,000 hectares in Indonesia.

While Synthetic Genomics eventually wants to use carbon dioxide as a feedstock for its “fourth-generation biofuels,” it will likely be work in feedstocks like palm oil and jathropa that yield positive cash flow in the near term.

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