Do Not Bet Against Craig Venter
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.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.
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
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.