Venter Outlines Progress in Engineering Microbes to Make Fuels

4/3/09Follow @bvbigelow

Connect CEO Duane Roth says that when he was organizing an “innovation summit” to showcase San Diego’s prowess in advanced research and innovation, he wanted to start each session of the two-day event with a scientific headliner as keynote speaker. And J. Craig Venter, who gained fame for his sequencing and analysis of the human genome, lived up to his billing as summit’s opening act yesterday.

With scores of venture investors listening raptly, Venter summarized his role in genomics research over past 14 years, saying it is now possible to synthesize genes and transplant chromosomes to create new forms of life. “If you want to know where molecular biology is going to be focused in the next few years,” Venter said, “it’s going to be transplanting genes to change one organism into something else.”

At Synthetic Genomics, the San Diego startup he co-founded in 2005, Venter said scientists are using such techniques to create new microbial species with enhanced and even unique capabilities. For example, he said Synthetic Genomics has created new species of microbes that grow on the surface of coal particles—and produce methane by consuming the coal.

He displayed a black-and-white image of a piece of coal that appeared to be carpeted with a mossy substance, saying it’s an organism that eats coal and makes a cleaner-burning fuel. “We and BP think we can scale this up substantially,” Venter said, referring to the global energy giant that became a development partner and investor in Synthetic Genomics two years ago. “We’re not too far away from making an announcement to scale this up.”

Venter says the team at Synthetic Genomics also has created new types of cells that consume carbon dioxide and hydrogen and make methane and long chains of organic molecules with as many as 18 carbon atoms “in a pure form.”

In his presentation, Venter touched on the broader significance of the six-year-old global expedition that his sloop, Sorcerer II, recently resumed to collect samples of plankton and other marine organisms. After analyzing the DNA of marine organisms collected every 200 miles on prior voyages, Venter said his team found the genetic variability among microorganisms is far higher than expected. “What we found changed the view of our environment,” Venter said.

As a result, Venter explained that the samples collected by the expedition so far represent enormous genomic diversity. “There were less than 1 million genes in the public databases when we started,” Venter said. Now there are more than 20 million. And by using what he called “combinatorial genomics” to screen that database, Venter said it’s possible to identify and select genes to create new chromosomes.

Venter’s address was followed by an overview of San Diego’s emerging cleantech sector, which included a presentation by UC San Diego biologist Steven Briggs on the algal biofuels technologies under development at San Diego-based Sapphire Energy and other local startups.

“All of our petroleum today came from algae, it’s just old algae,” Briggs said, referring to crude oil created from dense blankets of algae that lived 400 million years ago. Now, by using genetic engineering, Briggs said Sapphire and other companies are optimizing algae to directly produce gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel. Briggs said such biofuels technologies appear capable of someday producing 200,000 barrels of jet fuel a day—enough to supply the needs of the U.S. Air Force—from algae grown on less than 800,000 acres. “It’s not crazy to imagine that by the year 2050 we (the United States) could become an oil exporter again,” Briggs said.

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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