Jack Newman, senior vice president of research and co-founder of biotech company Amyris, once believed algae would serve as the next biofuel. As a young postdoc in the lab of University of California, Berkeley, synthetic biologist Jay Keasling, Newman floated the idea of starting an algal biofuel company at one of the informal pitch parties Keasling would hold for his students at his house.

But as Newman and his colleagues continued to brainstorm, they saw a major hurdle. Evolution hasn't achieved ultimate photosynthetic efficiency in plants and algae - only a small percentage of solar energy is converted to biomass - so human efforts to do so would be quixotic. "Nature's been trying to do that for billions of years," Newman says. "Wow, that's really hard."

Plus, he adds, the algal genome...

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