World's next fuel source could be designer organisms

Micro-organisms can create beer, cheese and gangrene. Now genome pioneer J. Craig Venter wants them to produce fuel.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
4 min read
The scientist who cracked the human genome now hopes to exploit the properties of DNA to solve the world's pending energy crisis.

J. Craig Venter, who gained worldwide fame in 2000 when he mapped the human genetic code, is behind a new start-up called Synthetic Genomics, which plans to create new types of organisms that, ideally, would produce hydrogen, secrete nonpolluting heating oil or be able to break down greenhouse gases.

The initial focus will be on creating "biofactories" for hydrogen and ethanol, two fuels seen as playing an increasing role in powering cars in the future. Hydrogen also holds promise for heating homes and putting juice into electronic devices.

The raw genetic material for these synthetic micro-organisms will come from a diverse set of genes from a variety of species, according to the company. While many of the genes will come from some of the aquatic micro-organisms that Venter and his colleagues discovered during extensive ocean voyages in the last two years, the company will also experiment with genes from large mammals such as dogs.

"Rapid advances in high throughput DNA sequencing and synthesis, as well as high performance computing and bioinformatics, now enable us to synthesize novel photosynthetic and metabolic pathways," Venter said in a statement earlier this year. "We are in an era of rapid advances in science and are beginning the transition from being able to not only read genetic code, but are now moving to the early stages of being able to write code."

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A small but growing number of researchers are examining ways to tap the power of biology. At Stanford University, for instance, professor James Swartz has been conducting experiments on a soil micro-organism that uses energy absorbed from light to split water molecules, a chemical reaction that produces hydrogen. Typically, organisms that derive energy from the sun--look no farther than the oak tree or the grass in your backyard--exploit that energy to grow.

J. Craig Venter

In Cambridge, Mass., GreenFuel Technologies has created "bioreactors" filled with algae. The algae are fed with sunlight, water and carbon-carrying emissions from power plants. The algae are then harvested and turned into biodiesel fuel.

Engineering organisms for the benefit of humanity creates obvious risks. Both Stanford and Synthetic Genomics have said they are aware of the potential ethical and environmental issues of their work and will take actions to prevent unwanted consequences. Lab-created species could escape into the wild and unpredictably alter the local habitat. Efforts to clone animals--and talk of cloning humans--have provoked fierce debate in recent years among scientists, government agencies and the general public.

But genetic engineering has its adherents too. Jay Keasling, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, is working on synthetic microbes that could one day produce antimalarial drugs in volume and inexpensively, and thus potentially help stem one of the world's most devastating diseases. He has received grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Naturally occurring microbes have been widely used by people since time immemorial to create everyday products such as cheese and beer.

The genetic approach to biofuels could eliminate one of the more prominent difficulties facing biomass energy, which typically involves burning plant matter or alcohol derived from plants. Namely, it takes more energy to make biofuels than the process provides. Even backers of ethanol, a mixture of gasoline and plant alcohol, have said that one needs to add in the value of other byproducts created in the ethanol process to come out ahead.

The metabolic processes of living organisms can be quite efficient. An oak tree, some scientists have noted, can convert more sunlight into energy than can silicon solar panels.

Launched quietly in June, Synthetic Genomics emerged out of Venter's voyage around the globe in the Sorcerer II, his combination of luxury yacht and floating laboratory. The trip, which took place in 2003 and 2004, gave Venter an opportunity to examine a fairly wide variety of little-understood or heretofore unknown micro-organisms.

A test voyage of the Sorcerer II in the Sargasso Sea off Bermuda in early 2003 led to the discovery of 1,800 new species and 1.2 million new genes.

Synthetic Genomics certainly comes stocked with brain power. Venter's fellow co-founders are Hamilton Smith, who won the 1978 Nobel Prize in Medicine, and Juan Enriquez, the founding director of Harvard Business School's Life Sciences Project. Smith and Venter also founded Celera Genomics, which later became part of pharmaceuticals developer Applera.

The company will also work with the J. Craig Venter Institute, a 200-person nonprofit research organization. Collectively, Venter and the scientific organizations associated with him have sequenced the DNA of nearly 300 organisms, including the fruit fly, mouse, rat and dog.

Draper Fisher Jurvetson, one of the more active Silicon Valley venture capital firms in alternative energy and so-called clean technologies, is an investor. The firm also has investments in GreenFuel, solar specialists Konarka and in EnerNoc, which has developed a system to reduce energy consumption in office buildings.