Blunt to the bone, human genome pioneer J. Craig Venter flatly declared in San Diego this week that algae-based biofuels “are just dead” unless the federal government sets an effective carbon policy.
“It doesn’t matter what the scientific breakthroughs are, there’s no way to beat oil,” Venter said after someone in the audience asked when advances in synthetic biology would begin to make an impact in energy. The question followed Venter’s 45-minute presentation on genomics and synthetic biology, a keynote talk that capped a two-day investor and partnering forum held in San Diego as part of the Seventh Annual Stem Cell Meeting on the Mesa.
“Basically, if we don’t have a carbon policy, and an effective carbon policy soon, biofuels are just dead,” Venter said. He explained afterward that the pricing of petroleum-based fuels doesn’t reflect the overall costs that burning fossil fuels have on the environment, and the volatility of petroleum-based pricing undermines the viability of biofuels—at least as a relatively short-term venture investment. For example, natural gas prices have substantially declined in recent years with a boom in domestic natural gas production amid somewhat slower demand during the economic downturn.
“Oil’s not even an issue right now because of all the new natural gas discoveries,” Venter said. “So there’s no way economically for a new fuel made out of renewables to ever be able to compete with something an oil company can do, without sharp federal regulations and a carbon policy that says, ‘You can’t just keep taking carbon out of the ground, burning it and putting it in the atmosphere.’ Until we do that, there is no biofuel industry.”
Venter added that U.S. policy makers might come around if superstorms like Hurricane Sandy continue to slam the nation.
So what does this mean for the work on algae-based biofuels at San Diego’s Synthetic Genomics, where Venter is the founding chairman and CEO? (Synthetic Genomics announced with considerable fanfare in 2009 that it had established a partnership with ExxonMobil, which planned to invest $600 million or more on the development of renewable, algae-based biofuels.)
“Oh, we’re still working on it,” Venter said.
Venter’s presentation was introduced by Larry Goldstein, director of the stem cell program at UC San Diego, who revealed that he has some of Venter’s brain cells growing in a dish in his laboratory. From a skin biopsy, Goldstein said researchers in his lab created a line of pluripotent neuronal stem cells. Venter later told the audience, “Larry told me my neurons are slowly taking over his labs, and I do feel my consciousness expanding.”
During his presentation Tuesday evening, the famed geneticist offered an overview of advances at the confluence of genomics, regenerative medicine, and synthetic biology. Venter drew audible gasps from some people in the audience as he highlighted some of the recent work underway at the nonprofit J. Craig Venter Institute and Synthetic Genomics, and the potential of new technologies. Venter has covered some of these topics elsewhere over the past month, most notably at The Atlantic Meets the Pacific forum in La Jolla and the Wired Health Conference in New York City. Those highlights include:
—One of the key conceptual advances in recent years, Venter said, is in thinking of DNA as the “software of life.” When scientists “read the genome” with today’s gene sequencing tools, he says the nucleotide bases are converted into computerized ones and zeros. While there hasn’t been as much attention focused on writing genes as there has been on reading them, Venter says this “digital interface” between computing and biology now makes it possible for scientists to synthesize a genome—and create new organisms—by using computers to write the DNA and design each gene.
—Through a process he calls digital biological conversion, Venter says it would be possible to send a robotic genetic sequencer to Mars to sequence the genome of a microbe in a Martian soil sample—and transmit the sequence back to Earth. The data could then be used in a high-level biocontainment laboratory to replicate the Martian organism—by synthesizing its genome and inserting it into a living cell. Such “biological teleportation” means the genome of an organism isolated and sequenced by a rover on Mars could be transmitted to Earth nearly at the speed of light, arriving in just 4.3 minutes when the two planets are closest together. Sound like science fiction? The idea presumes that life on Mars, if it can be found, is also based on DNA. Nevertheless, Venter has said his team has been using an automated gene sequencer in California’s Mojave Desert to sequence organisms from soil samples and transmit the data to the Internet.
—The same digital biological converter technology could be used to transmit vaccines in a pandemic. Venter said that 250,000 people died during the nine months it took to sequence the H1N1 virus and synthesize a vaccine. Using digital biological conversion technology would take less than a day, Venter said. “I’m predicting that in the not-too-distant future there’ll be a home version of this. There will just be a simple box attached to your computer and you’ll be able to download and ‘print’ your vaccine from the Internet,” Venter said.
—The human microbiome—the trillions of microbes in the body that add up to several pounds—is becoming increasingly important to understanding human biology. Of the 450 to 550 proteins that circulate in the bloodstream, Venter says about 60 percent are produced by human genes, 30 percent come from what we eat and drink, and about 10 percent are bacterial. For example, Venter says alcohol-induced liver damage is not caused directly by alcohol but rather by a microbial toxin released in the presence of alcohol. The human phenotype—the interaction of human genes in this environment—is going to become the most important way to understand human biology, Venter said.