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News Analysis: GMO Research Dominates BP-UC Partnership

By Richard Brenneman
Tuesday March 06, 2007

Critics of the proposed agreement between UC Berkeley and BP — the rebranded British Petroleum — should take their best shots now, because once the deal is signed not only Big Oil, but Big Academy and Big Government Lab will mobilize their own PR folks to fire back. 

Should a final contract be signed as UC Berkeley proposes, the collective public relations efforts of academia and the corporation will be formally obligated to uphold the project as the world’s leading research in alternative energy, implicitly holding up biofuels as the preeminent solution to world energy woes. 

What’s more, venture capital firms have promised to marshal their lobbying efforts to catch the ears of hesitant legislators and other government leaders. 

All these efforts will target would-be critics of a project that proposes nothing less than to re-engineer living plant cells to toil away as microfactories, delivering the raw materials to other living cells toiling away to turn plantstuff into fuel to keep cars and trucks on the road.  

These facts—and many more—emerge from a close reading of the 93-page submission, a copy of which was obtained by the Daily Planet, which was used by UC Berkeley, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) and the University of Illinois at Champagne-Urbana (UI) to win the promise of a half-billion dollars from the global oil giant,  

One commonly understood phrase is missing though omnipresent throughout the first 56 pages of the document and appears only in the final and shortest item in the research program—and then only as a warning that “This research will profit from paying significant attention to the evolving regulatory and societal response to genetically modified organisms at the domestic and international level.” 

Genetically modified organisms—or GMOs—have provoked political firestorms, and bans in Europe and protests and suicides by Indian farmers have heightened the controversy around their creation and use. 

But, as the document makes clear on page 56, “Synthetic biology is a core function with the EBI,” with “synthetic biology” being the reframed and university-and-BP-preferred alternative name to GMO. 

“Synthetic biology is the design and construction of new biological entities—such as enzyme, genetic circuits and cells—or the redesign of existing biological systems,” states the proposal. 

Still to be finalized is a basic legal document for the project, which is to be negotiated between and signed by UC Berkeley and BP, with the University of Illinois and LBNL serving as subcontractors to Cal. 

BP itself would create a proprietary subsidiary to conduct its own research in separate quarters in the same building. 


Designer genes 

While some gene-engineered microbes are eating GMO plantstuff and excreting ethanol and other fuels, other microscopic forms of “synthetic biology” could be slaving away deep beneath the earth’s surface, chomping down on hard-to-reach oil and rendering it easier to extract or digesting coal into cleaner forms of liquid fuel. 

But most of the emphasis is on biomass—chopped up bits of cropped plants—as the likely source of the energy-creation efforts of the Energy Biosciences Institute, or EBI. 

The proposal lists three potential sources of biomass to be used for fuels in addition to corn: fast-growing poplar trees, switchgrass and miscanthus—with the emphasis on the last, a tall, hardy perennial already being used in European pilot programs. 

Experiments will focus on developing GMO strains tweaked to overcome biological factors that make it hard for microorganisms to digest. 

Tasked with creating the new plants are the Biomass Engineering, Lignin, Feedstocks and Breeding laboratories. The Feedstock Pretreatment, Enzyme Discovery, Enzyme Evolution and Engineering and Biofuels Chemistry laboratories will explore processing the plants, and the Laboratory for Integrated Bioprocessing will focus on treating a single organism that would both produce enzymes to break down biomass and convert the resulting compounds to fuels. 

The Pathway Engineering Lab, aided by the Host Engineering Laboratory, will identify the genes that produce critical enzymes and develop organisms that thrive in harsh industrial conditions in the presence of compounds that might otherwise destroy the microbes in their naturally occurring forms. 

Several more labs will focus on enzymes. 

The Microbial Enhanced Oil Recovery and Fossil Fuel Bioprocessing labs will concentrate on petroleum and coal, respectively, while the Biological Carbon Sequestration lab will seeks ways to trap more carbon and keep it from the atmosphere. 

Another lab will focus on harvesting, transport and storage. 

The remaining labs will focus on marketing, social and environmental implications, and developing tools to implement, evaluate and regulate the emerging GMO-derived fuel industry. 


Construction sites 

The proposal sites the main offices and labs in a purpose-built facility at LBNL. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has pledged $40 million in state funds for the structure, and the university has lined up $15 million in private contributions and $30 million in state lease revenue bonds, based on revenues anticipated from BP. 

The structure, envisioned as a three-story building, will be located next to a planned new parking lot with 150 spaces—the same number as the anticipated number of staff positions. 

Initially, the program would operate in two existing structures, Hildebrand Hall, a research building, and the Calvin Laboratory, a structure scheduled for demolition to make way for a new office and meeting complex joining the university’s law and business schools. 

Initial plans call for a three-story building at LBNL with special containment labs designed to prevent release of any of the organisms created at the lab. The lab rated Biohazard Safety Level 2 on a scale from one to four, with four covering the most lethal agents. BSL 2 is the level mandated for handling the HIV, influenza and hepatitis viruses. 

The proposal accepted by BP last month declares that UC Regents are scheduled to approve the structure this month, with detailed design work to start by summer. 

That schedule is dependent on approval of the Environmental Impact Report for LBNL’s Long Range Development Plan, now the subject of public hearings, including an upcoming joint meeting of the city’s Planning, Landmarks Preservation, Transportation and Community Health commissions. The session begins at 7 p.m. Mar. 14 in the North Berkeley Senior Center, 1901 Hearst Ave. 

The City Council will add its own comments the following Tuesday. 

The deadline for all public comments is March 23. A copy of the draft EIR is available on the lab’s website at 

A smaller, 6,748-square-foot lab will be housed in an existing building at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana in the Institute of Genomic Biology building. 

The project will use a variety of other facilities and scientific equipment at LBNL and will occupy some of the space in a new 11,600-square-foot Biomolecular Nanotechnology Center.  

Plans also call for use of the university’s Oxford Tract and Growing Field and yet another university-own site three miles from campus. 

In addition to controlling all of the research conducted by its own scientists, BP has the right to review all research conducted by faculty and students at the institute to make sure no trade secrets for corporate research leak out. 

In addition to testing crops at sites provided by UI, the Biofuels Markets and Networks and the Biofuels Evaluation and Adoption laboratories will seek out test sites in Europe, China and Africa and field research sites in the U.S., Europe, China, India, Africa and Latin America—looking at both growing conditions and the political and regulatory climates. 


PR and outreach 

The public relations push is mandated on page 56 of the proposal, which calls for the combined PR efforts of BP, the two universities and the lab “to ensure that the EBI maintains national and international visibility as the world’s premier energy research institute.” 

Implications of this massive PR push for other forms of energy research, including solar, wind, tidal and even nuclear, aren’t mentioned. The universities have committed to pushing biofuels as the premier solution to the world’s energy crisis—and as a lab representative told the Berkeley Planning Commission, the primary purpose of the fuels is to keep transportation moving. 

The proposal also recruits the extension services of the two university systems to sell the institute to students at the universities and in public schools, and to grant access to both forms of academia to BP engineers and scientists to encourage the young to pursue careers in the field. 

Scientists will also get to work on marketing their work with the help of MBA. students from UC Berkeley’s Management of Technology Program, a joint effort of the Haas School of Business, the College of Engineering and the School of Information. 

Senior industry executives and venture capitalists have pledged to support the program by: 

• Investing in BP spinoff companies and other businesses needed to solidify the emerging industry. 

• Bringing in new corporate partners in line with BP’s interest. 

• Mentoring EBI graduate and post-doctoral students looking for jobs in the industry. 

• “Advocating for” federal and state policies supporting EBI and the biofuel industry. 

The closest the proposal comes to a watchdog body is the Social Interactions and Risk Laboratory, which is staffed by two economists, a biologist, an MBA and a Harvard-trained lawyer. There is no provision for lay membership or an ombudsperson.  



Patent rights to inventions and discoveries fall into two classes: BP-only and open research. 

The first category involves the work of BP scientists in the half of the building they lease from the university, a space from which university staff are “excluded entirely in performance of their university activities.” 

However, BP will also contract with faculty and do research jointly with faculty members, resulting in more complex financial relations. 

University-only research would belong to the university, but profits from discoveries by joint teams would be shared, as would the fruits of research by BP scientists using university or LBNL facilities.