Sunday, October 22, 2006

Craig Venter at Poptech

I missed Poptech this year, but very generously the amazing Poptech team streamed the whole conference - so I’ve kinda been there, at least virtually.
The one talk I was really looking forward to was Craig Venter – of decoding the human genome fame. He came on as the last speaker. He’s almost scary in his laser like determination and belief in what he’s doing, but I get this feeling that we’d better listen. He’s working on “synthetic biology”, his project is to create new life from the bottom up, bacteria which can be tailored to do Really Usefull Stuff – like eating CO2 and turning it into energy for us to use.
It’s a wonderful prospect, but I can see a million things going wrong before we can relax about large scale use of synthetic bacteria.
The following passage of Venter’s speech gets into some of the details. Sounds to me like he’s spelling out the future - although I’m not sure that I’ve gotten all the spelling right:

No cells’ genome has yet been even remotely synthesized and even genome replacement has not yet been demonstrated. So we’re early on, but we think there’s tremendous use for this key technology as we go forward.
This audience clearly knows about energy demand and the potential to develop new fuels. My view is coming a little bit from a different side in terms of what we are doing to the environment; We’re adding 3,5 billion tons of CO2 to the atmosphere each year, we can not afford to ignore any technology that offers a solution.
We’ve designed, on paper, organisms that can take that CO2 back from the atmosphere and fix the CO2 into cellular proteins, sugars, biopolymers etc. Just recently Dupont has opened a plant in Tennessee that has silos, 4 of them, about the size of this room, for producing propanediol from sugar, that goes into their new ceronapolymer that’s going to be used for stain free carpets and clothing - all derived from modifying the genome of a bacteria. They are starting with sugar, but we can go back further, to CO2.
We have metabolic pathways that can take carbon monoxide out of the air, split water with that, producing hydrogen and oxygen. We can go from methane to produce hydrogen or other fuels. We have a team working on modifying photosynthesis to go straight from sunlight into hydrogen production without any other energy being added - and we and others have been working on modifying cells to produce burnable fuels directly.
So cellulasis, or enzymes that break down the complex sugars that form plants and trees – everybody knows that termites can eat wood but in fact termites can not eat wood, they have bacteria in their guts, the cellulasis, that break down the cellulose into simple sugars.
The goal is to convert some of agriculture where we can capture back some of this carbon in a recyclable fashion. People are starting with ethanol but there is no reason why in a few years time we can’t go right from cellulose through a bacteria to make butane, propane, even octane directly.
Now all of a sudden, in stead of taking carbon from the ground, burning it and putting it in the atmosphere we can recycle it through the process of photosynthesis. We’re looking at a wide variety of plants as feed stocks, going into producing chemicals as Dupont is doing, for nutraceuticals and most importantly into energy - in terms of what we are rapidly doing to this planet.
I’m the least worried about disease, whether it’s manmade or new emerging infections affecting humanity. In the long term. if we destroy our spaceship, which we are in the process of doing, disease will not matter.

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