15 March 2010

Do Not Bet Against Craig Venter

Craig Venter has true grit. He came by it honestly over his lifetime, and continues to display true grit in all of his ventures.

Since mapping the human genome 10 years ago, J. Craig Venter has found plenty of work. The biologist now is burrowing into DNA in as many forms as he can discover, in organisms from the sea and deep underground. His goal: to use the building blocks found in naturally occurring DNA to make synthetic cells. He and his partners at Exxon Mobil Corp. and BP PLC believe genetically engineered life forms hold great promise for energy and other industries. _WallStreetJournal

Fuels-from-microbes is a topic of interest to scientists, venture capitalists, and technologists around the world. It is no wonder that Craig Venter finds himself at the center of the cyclone that involves finding the replacement for fossil fuels and finding the keys to biological magic both at the same time.

In July of last year, Synthetic Genomics announced a $300 million agreement with Exxon to research and develop next generation biofuels using photosynthetic algae. That investment will occur over a number of years -- but that's still a lot of cash. It's more than the total amount of venture capital invested in algae startups since 2005. A drop in the bucket for Exxon but still, big money.

Here's what Venter had to say: "We are at the early stages of seeing what biology can do."

Venter has come up an idea to trick algae into pumping more lipids out. He also claims to have "engineered algae to continuously pump out hydrocarbons," which eliminates much of the cost and energy-intensity of conventional algae oil farming. If that can be done, economically and at scale -- it is absolutely disruptive.

...Venter speaks in a matter-of-fact manner about his activities but beneath that calm tone are mind-bending ideas straight out of science-fiction novels. Venter has already created the first cell with a synthetic DNA gene. If not exactly creating life, Venter is bending the genetic code to do his bidding. He said that he is "going from the four-letter genetic code of A, C, G and T to the binary codes of ones and zeros."

He is "amassing a genetic database...continually learning to write the genetic code" and "treating the genetic code as a raw material." By "changing the DNA software in the cell, the cell converts to a new species." In Venter's words, "The concept of life is changing."

In Venter's "optimistic" estimation, it will take roughly a decade to get to scale on CO2 to fuel. But "once the proof of concept is done, this will move rapidly."

There remain many problems with algae -- it's not just a matter of tricking the algae to pump more lipids out or to secrete hydrocarbons. There's an entire process chain in algae farming that needs to be optimized -- algae growth, water issues, nutrient issues and more.

But Venter is a man of action and it's not a good bet to wager against him. _BiofuelsDigest
Venter is the Vietnam war veteran who beat the Human Genome Project to the human genome. Venter understands the stakes that are involved in learning the secrets of the gene -- whether for humans or for algae. Once these secrets are out of the box, there is no replacing them.

Programming algae to replace fossil fuels will be a trivial achievement in comparison to finding the genetic keys to nurturing smarter humans. Whatever Venter may say, there is little doubt that he would like to be at the center of that cyclone as well.

Venter is a man of grit, accomplishment, and great ambition. Such men aim high, and once they reach great heights of achievement, they tend to aim even higher.

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5 Comments:

Blogger Bruce Hall said...

At some point, the prospect of designing any life form becomes possible... probable. At that point, what occurs will be a matter of politics.

One could project gene "augmentation" in humans that enabled photosynthesis and direct manufacturing of food by the skin. A few "bugs" might have to be worked out to make that feasible.

That way, we could product O2 from CO2 and cool the planet. Of course, if it got too cool, we could resort to reversing the process.

See, there is a solution for everything!

Monday, 15 March, 2010  
Blogger ee_ga said...

The skin photosynthesis thing wouldn't work. Humans require more than O2 and sugar, we also need vitamins, minerals, and protein.

Monday, 15 March, 2010  
Blogger ee_ga said...

I also don't want to be green.

Monday, 15 March, 2010  
Blogger al fin said...

You do not want to be green? As Mr. Spock would say, "fascinating!"

Our intestinal flora provide us with certain vitamins and useful chemicals. Soon we will have modified probiotics in our food that will generate all kinds of useful substances in our gut.

The skin micro-organisms will be necessary for us to eventually get past our dependency upon such massive gastrointestinal systems. They can be modified to synthesise just about anything we will need, using glucose as fuel.

We can stock spare kidneys, livers, pancreases, and accessory hearts in the space that our GI systems currently take up. ;-)

Imagine how hard the job of drug enforcement agents will become when any type of plant at all can be programmed to produce virtually any kind of drug at all.

At least the drug lords will have to find something else to do besides killing people.

When the average person's back yard produces more liquid fuel than he can use, the oil dictators will likewise have to find something else to do besides sponsoring terrorism and the like.

Monday, 15 March, 2010  
Blogger kurt9 said...

I don't think skin photosynthesis would provide the energy sufficient for the mobility of animal life. Mammalian metabolism is an order of magnitude greater than plant metabolism.

Synthetic photosynthesis would be more useful as an improvement over conventional agriculture as well as a new process for manufacturing industrial chemicals.

Monday, 15 March, 2010  

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