The Big Science Challenge With Biofuel: A Chat with ISB’s Nitin Baliga

5/3/11Follow @xconomy

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bioreactor-based approaches in which yeast or bacteria like E.coli get modified to produce specialty chemicals. Quite a few biofuel companies, Solazyme among them, have sought to diversify their offerings by starting with low-volume, high-value commodity chemicals that go into products like food additives or skin creams.

“If you have good understanding of the systems biology, you can optimize the pathway so you can get not just one product, but several,” Baliga says.

Sapphire, for one, has done some interesting work in scaling up its process, and putting a lot of thought into water chemistry in open ponds, and how the algae react to the wind, and temperature variations, Baliga says.

The number of variables in the natural environment sounded almost impossible to calculate to me, and so I wondered if Baliga thinks it’s more challenging to study how microbes react in the ocean or open ponds than they do, in, say, the human body. Not so, he says—the systems of the the human body are still even more complicated.

“If you think of the number of kinds of cells, and the molecular mechanisms at play, you have 100 trillion cells in the body, and on top of that, you have 100 times as many microbial cells in the body,” Baliga says. “We need to think about these things in an abstract sense. If you think in detail, you’ll get lost and overwhelmed easily. You have to ask questions that can be addressed.”

In the environmental health work, you can sequence various microbial organisms, count various kinds of microbes in the environment, and build “reasonably good models of who lives there, and what their genomes look like, and how they work with each other,” Baliga says.

I’m not sure if that means we’ll see progress with biofuels before we see the systems approach pay off with personalized medicine that ISB president Lee Hood often talks about. And Baliga was careful not to overpromise about the payoff from all this systems biology understanding. He’s not going so far as to say biofuels will ever truly dominate energy production like fossil fuels do today. The smart grid, solar power, wind, and biofuels all need to play a role, he says. “These are complex problems, and you need a cocktail of solutions,” Baliga says.

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