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Fueling green tech with biology and Moore's Law

Investor Steve Jurvetson is bullish on green innovation because entrepreneurs can tap into the rapid advances in genetic engineering and IT.

SAN FRANCISCO--The best route for green technologies to have their own Moore's Law of rapid technological progress is by harnessing the steady advances in IT and, increasingly, synthetic biology, investors said here today.

Combining different engineering disciplines can breathe new life into decades-old technology and help solve environmental and energy challenges, according to speakers at the AlwaysOn GoingGreen conference.

Joule Unlimited is a company which has used synthetic biology to design an organism that can make diesel fuel. Joule Unlimited

Moore's Law has led to a steady increase in computing power for decades, but that rate of progress is now being matched in the life sciences, said Steve Jurvetson, managing director at venture firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson, during a keynote talk here. It's at the point where genetic engineers can rapidly create custom-made versions of micro-organisms, such as e.coli bacteria, by studying organism genomes and assembling bits of DNA, he said.

"You can take e.coli and treat them like Lego blocks. It's just like building code into a living organism," he said.

Genetic engineering has been greatly sped up by the steady increase in computing power. Genomatica, for example, uses computer-intensive modeling tools to understand the metabolic pathways of e.coli and then rearranges them to make a desired chemical from sugar, rather than oil.

Synthetic biology, enhanced by the steady increase in computing power, will be used to make everyday products, such as plastics or textiles, from renewable sources rather than petroleum, Jurvetson said.

These same techniques can be used for many other purposes, such as making biofuels from algae economically or taking arsenic out of well water, said Drew Endy, assistant professor of bioengineering at Stanford University and co-founder of biotech company Gen9. The challenge is to create the tools so that genetic engineers can work with the genomic information available to them, he said. "How do we get 100-times better design tools and figure out the market opportunities?" he questioned during a panel.

Many technical advances in energy and environment come by taking advantage of progress in a variety of different fields, speakers said. General Fusion, for example, is a start-up that is pursuing a nuclear fusion technique abandoned in the early 1980s because of improvements in IT and plasma engineering, said Wal van Lierop, an investor in the company and CEO of venture capital company Chyrsalix.

Start-up Array Converter is trying to greatly improve the efficiency of inverters for solar panels by tapping into radio-based communications established by Marconi decades ago.

"We're shaking up the bag of old technologies and looking at how we can apply those technologies to solve today's problems in a more efficient and scalable manner," said CEO Wendy Arienzo.