Global agriculture and biotechnology giant Monsanto has taken an undisclosed equity stake in biofuels player Sapphire Energy. The two companies will also team up for a multi-year research collaboration.

Sapphire is working on what it calls “green crude” created from algae, which can be refined into gas, diesel and jet fuel. Monsanto, a top supplier of genetically modified seeds, is on the hunt for genes that can be applied to agriculture, especially those that increase crop yields. The two companies will use Sapphire’s research tools and algae to discover genes that could be applied to agriculture, while Sapphire says the deal will help “accelerate” the commercialization of algae as a renewable energy crop.

Algae companies that originally set out to make biofuels have increasingly turned to other ways to leverage their technology. This is also true of biofuels startups in general. Yesterday, Solazyme — which has a contract with the military to deliver algal biofuels — launched a skincare line based on its microalgae research.

And big-name partnerships abound in this field. Companies like Unilever, Procter & Gamble and others have all forged partnerships and/or invested in biofuels startups whose technology could yield renewable ingredients or valuable research for their products.

The Monsanto/Sapphire partnership will work to identify genes in algae that affect an organism’s ability to supply strong yields even under non-ideal environmental conditions. The discoveries within algae could then be applied to corn, cotton, soybeans and other crops. Algae has a similar photosynthetic process to other plants, but is more efficient to work with, the companies say.

[Image via Flickr/shaferlens]


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