The Intersection

No doubt all this excess CO2 in the atmosphere is mucking up the planet, throwing all sorts of plants, animals, and natural cycles off kilter.

Enter Craig Venter.

Yes, the very same fellow who decoded the human genome in 2000 faster than anyone. Eight years later, he’s set his sights on something that could be even bigger–replacing the petrochemical industry!

In short, the most well-known man in genomics is manipulating chromosomes and trying to create an organism that will ingest CO2, water, and sunlight, to give off fuels like diesel and gasoline that we can use it today’s automobiles. An energy bug. Really.

Read my full post here and decide for yourself… Scientific revolution or dangerous idea?

Comments

  1. #1 Jon Winsor
    June 17, 2008

    I agree with authors like Paulina Borsook, that Wired skews heavily toward techno-libertarianism

  2. #2 Sheril R. Kirshenbaum
    June 17, 2008

    Well I wrote the Correlations post as ‘Sheril’, not ‘Wired-cyborg’, and it’s an interesting idea with potentially large implications.

    Venter’s is not the only lab looking into the concept and it’s quite possible. My question has more to do with space given I expect production would cover a large area.

  3. #3 Jon Winsor
    June 17, 2008

    Whoops. Ok. That’s you posting at Wired. I didn’t see that. That’s a completely different ball game. (I guess I need to ingest more coffee before I comment in AM.)

    I’m all for any kind of process that takes CO2 out of the air, even if the end product is fuel. At least we wouldn’t be extracting and burning more fuel, and the research itself might lead to other solutions. But I think you’re right, how do we expose the surface area needed to make this process worth it?

  4. #4 Romeo Vitelli
    June 17, 2008

    Where does the energy come from for this conversion? If it’s from sunlight, then it’s hard to see how this could be more cost-effective than other forms of converting solar energy into workable energy. If anything, it would be less efficient since there is bound to be considerable energy loss along the way. I’m not selling my oil stocks quite yet.

  5. #5 caynazzo
    June 17, 2008

    I don’t know. This sounds like another Venter exaggeration. I think reporting on what he says he’s doing or capable of doing should be done with a grain of salt.

  6. #6 llewelly
    June 17, 2008

    I’m with Romeo. Why insert a middleman into what is really a solar power scheme?

  7. #7 decrepitoldfool
    June 17, 2008

    Scientific revolution or dangerous idea?

    False dichotomy, they are not mutually exclusive.

    Coal-burning power plants could sell their CO2 to a subdivision that uses this process and ratchet up their profits, and in turn sells the resulting fuel back to the plant to cut coal consumed. Endless opportunities for creative accounting!

    A possibly revolutionary, and possibly dangerous idea. Suppose you make the bug unsurvivable outside the processing environment… maybe make it require regular lysine supplements or something?

    /snark

  8. #8 peter
    June 17, 2008

    eats CO2, water, sunlight. exudes petrochemicals…

    the phrase “Bad idea theater” comes to mind… I wonder what would happen should any of these little dears get loose? I’m probably being alarmist, but I can think of hundreds of places where I would hate to have someone drop a vial full of these…

  9. #9 Anthony
    June 17, 2008

    Um… photosynthesis is the common chemical process by which plants eat CO2, water, sunlight, and a few trace nutrients, and produce hydrocarbons. Most likely, Venter is working on genetically modified plants or algae.

    As far as producing something dangerous, it’s really not a worry. High yield plants and algae are generally incapable of surviving in the wild — they get out-competed by low yield species.

  10. #10 AtheistAcolyte
    June 17, 2008

    One would hope Venter would engineer them to be reliant on some not-easily-found-in-nature-but-easy-to-create chemical as a medium so they couldn’t survive outside the lab.

    </handwaving>

  11. #11 TomJoe
    June 17, 2008

    Suppose you make the bug unsurvivable outside the processing environment… maybe make it require regular lysine supplements or something?

    Bacteria have a penchant for exchanging genetic material, making it quite possible for this “designer bug” to acquire lysine biosynthetic pathways.

    Is it highly unlikely? Yes.

    Would I rule it out as never even remotely possible of happening? No.

  12. #12 BAllanJ
    June 17, 2008

    “create an organism that will ingest CO2, water, and sunlight”

    Ummm…you mean….plants? The only difference was he listed fuel as a product. If we’re just talking about reducing the carbon in the air, then you don’t have to make fuel, you just have to soak up CO2. Then bury forever whatever you make. It may turn into oil or coal in the distant future. Not sure why we have to create another microbe for this….start cutting down mature trees and bury them in old mine shafts and grow more trees. I know…prolly too simplistic, etc, but I don’t see how his plan is different from burning wood in all the coal fired stations.

  13. #13 justawriter
    June 17, 2008

    I think the Newsweek article only got published because somebody there had heard of Venter before. Hmm, an organism that will ingest CO2, water, and sunlight, to give off fuels, I wonder if that could be like, algae? There are something like 200 companies and research projects working on algae to biofuels projects. One, Solazyme, is even doing the industrial fermentation method Venter is describing. He’s about five years behind the curve.

  14. #14 Siamang
    June 17, 2008

    I’m not an alarmist about it. Something tells me that the way to do this is to create multiple symbiotic organisms that work together in a community. And that’s in a solution with a particular chemical makeup. I don’t think they’ll find an environment outside that vat that is amenable to their life.

    “Why insert a middleman into what is really a solar power scheme?”

    It’s not a middleman. It IS a solar-power scheme. A potentially much more efficient, cost-effective, scalable and portable solar-power scheme.

  15. #15 bigTom
    June 17, 2008

    If his plant (say algae) could have a stable population outside of an expensive enclosure, so that it was cheap per square meter, maybe he would have something. Others are working on high oil algae. The problem is that if you just chuck them into a pond (which is what you want to do it on the cheap), they get outcompeted by other strains of algae.

    Others are working on nonbiological methods of turning focused solar energy, plus water plus CO2 into fuel, so that part is not unique.

  16. #16 Hank Roberts
    June 17, 2008

    No reason to stop with mere petroleum:

    “… originally engineered by the Tnuctipun. Stage trees have a core of solid rocket fuel in their trunks that they ignite when mature to disperse their seeds. Particularly large stage trees are able to reach escape velocity and as a result have spread throughout the Milky Way galaxy ….”
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_fictional_plants

    For long term carbon sequestration, self-launching timber is the way to go.

  17. #17 Harry Abernathy
    June 18, 2008

    re: Why insert a middleman into what is really a solar power scheme?”

    It’s not just a question of energy conversion, but also energy storage. By converting sunlight into a fuel such as natural gas, ethanol, or gasoline, you have a portable, storable energy source. These fuels can be relied upon when the solar power production by itself is not sufficient (during peak utilization hours or in large transportation applications) or where solar power is not available (low light areas, places at night).

    Your choices for energy storage are either as some sort of fuel (for combustion or for use in fuel cells) or within batteries/ultracapacitors. There are many strategies being developed. Due to various economic, political, or environmental constraints, there is no one final solution, but rather individual solutions that must be tailored to each community.

  18. #18 tony
    June 18, 2008

    Talking about GE fixes to energy use and cutting out the middleman, why not GE humans to photosynthesize? Feel a little hungry? Sunbathe! Think of the energy savings by cutting out agriculture.

  19. #19 Siamang
    June 18, 2008

    “The problem is that if you just chuck them into a pond (which is what you want to do it on the cheap), they get outcompeted by other strains of algae.”

    Unless you fill the pond with Roundup and your GM petro-algae is Roundup-ready.

  20. #20 travc
    June 18, 2008

    No reason for alarm. This is just engineering/breeding to tweak the metabolic waste (bacteria the poop a commodity fuel) and, probably more significantly, can live in an environment more conducive to the chemistry.

    Not a new idea, but nice that Venter is using his celebrity to promote the idea… yes Venter is very much aware of his celebrity and makes an effort to use it for good. Lots of people are working on such things just now, but more publicity draws more investment.

    I seriously doubt the idea is to grow these in big open ponds. That may be the plan, but it is much easier to use long closed tubes and a constant flow. Bioreactors, even ‘solar’ ones, are again not at all new.

    This sort of white biotech will be a very big thing in the not to distant future. Every industrial input comes from mining, drilling, or growing… and the more growing the better IMO.

    BTW: Breeding organisms to work in an environment more conducive to the chemistry you want them to do is also not new. Most efforts to date have been on evolving specific enzyme catalysts, but the idea is the same. If the chemical reactions you desire work better at high temperature and pressure (pretty typical case), then taking an enzyme which does the job at a slow rate at normal temp/pressure and tweaking it to work fast at high temp/pressure can be a big win.

  21. #21 dark tent
    June 22, 2008

    the very same fellow who decoded the human genome in 2000 faster than anyone.

    If I’m in a relay race and happen to run one leg of the race faster than the other folks on my team ran their legs, does that mean I ran the race faster than anyone else?

    Venter used the publicly available data from the Human Genome Project (while his own company kept their data private) so I’m not sure that “faster than anyone” is a completely accurate description. :)

    I don’t wish to detract from Venter’s contribution, just to point out that a lot of scientists worked on that project — some of them for many years before Venter got involved in any significant way.

    I think there is pretty good evidence that Venter and his company would never have accomplished what they did without the work of these scientists.