It Came From the Sea

SUBHEAD: Interview qith J. Craig Venter on the search for biological energy replacements. Image above: Illuatration of imaginary "bugs" on their way into your system for ad campaign. From ( By Alan Murray on 8 March 2010 in Wall Street Journal - (

Since mapping the human genome 10 years ago, J. Craig Venter has found plenty of work. The biologist now is burrowing into DNA in as many forms as he can discover, in organisms from the sea and deep underground. His goal: to use the building blocks found in naturally occurring DNA to make synthetic cells. He and his partners at Exxon Mobil Corp. and BP PLC believe genetically engineered life forms hold great promise for energy and other industries.

The Wall Street Journal's Alan Murray interviewed Dr. Venter about his work. What follows are edited excerpts of their conversation.

ALAN MURRAY: You're one of the most intriguing characters of our generation. You cracked the code on the human genome, and for most people that would be sufficient for a life's work. But you're now trying to find the biological replacements for everything we've been talking about this morning: oil, gas, coal. How close are you to the answer?

J. CRAIG VENTER: It's not totally clear yet. We're at the early stages of seeing what biology can do in ways that people hadn't imagined. I think biology has the chance to be the true definition of a destructive technology. Because of the exponential growth of biological systems, producing huge amounts of substances from them is theoretically very possible.

The program we have with Exxon Mobil, to try and go from carbon dioxide and sunlight to hydrocarbons that could go right into the refineries, we're at a relatively early stage. My team at Synthetic Genomics had a major breakthrough in changing the genetic code of some algae, because algae was viewed as a farming problem for people. You grow algae, you harvest it, you extract the hydrocarbons. We engineered the algae so they would just continuously pump out the hydrocarbons into the media in a pure form.

So theoretically that makes it really nice. You just continually harvest this. The question is scale. That's the real bugaboo here for everybody.

MR. MURRAY: You're looking at a whole portfolio of biological projects. What are the most promising?

DR. VENTER: The most promising is the fundamental technology we've been developing at the Venter Institute with funding from Synthetic Genomics. And we're very close to the first cell powered by a completely synthetic DNA genome. We're writing new software so we can design in the computer cells to do what we want them to do. The areas we're applying these in, Exxon with CO2 to a biocrude…

MR. MURRAY: You create a bug whose feedstock, its food, is actually CO2. So it consumes CO2, helps the environment in that way, and then creates fuel.

DR. VENTER: That's right. We're using natural organisms and modifying them right now. But exactly what you said—the carbon that ends up in the carbon-based fuels, that carbon came from CO2. So these organisms use sunlight. They fix the CO2 into these hydrocarbon molecules that, the goal with this program is, go right into the Exxon refineries and create gasoline, diesel, that's indistinguishable from what we use today.

Delivery Date

MR. MURRAY: When do they expect you to actually be able to deliver fuel?

DR. VENTER:Scalability is the biggest issue. There's over 200 algae companies, I think, in the U.S. alone. If we can't generate billions of gallons of fuel per year per facility, it's not going to work. But I think with the Exxon engineering team and their money, we have a chance to scale it up. Our optimistic view is on the order of a decade before you would have gasoline in your tank made from CO2.

MR. MURRAY: If you look 20 years, 30 years down the road, how much of our fuel could come from this sort of algae?

DR. VENTER: Theoretically, all transportation fuels. There's no shortage of areas with lots of sunlight and seawater. It is going to get down to the cost equation. And it's too early to know.

MR. MURRAY: The other thing you do is sail around the world in your sailboat and look for genes that have already been created in biodiverse places around the world. That's a pretty good gig.

DR. VENTER: It's why I have a lot of fun with my job. The idea started after we finished the human genome in 2000, looking at what we could apply these tools to. And we knew virtually nothing about the environment. We discovered in just a barrel of seawater 40,000 new species and one million new genes. We published over 20 million genes to date. We're about to double that number again.

The importance of this is, when you're writing the genetic code out of the computer, I view these genes as our raw materials. We have all of these design components we're discovering in organisms around the planet.

Probably the first stages of an Exxon or other facilities will be either naturally occurring organisms or ones that have had simple modifications. But imagine if we can design a new algae from scratch that has two or three times the efficiency of anything that occurs naturally. That will be a game-changer overnight, doubling or tripling the capacity of any facility.

MR. MURRAY: So out on your boat, you're looking for the genetic information that you can use in your synthetic biology products.

DR. VENTER: We're capturing all of the DNA that we find in the ocean. We decode it, build up these huge computer databases, so that when we want genes that do different things, we just pull these out of the computer. DNA is, in fact, the software of life.

MR. MURRAY: How confident are you that you can use synthetic biology to create bugs that basically can consume CO2 and produce energy for the world?

DR. VENTER: The biggest carbon sink on the planet is these organisms in the ocean that are capturing back CO2. The biology is known. It's a question of improving the efficiency for work in a production facility.

How Expensive?

MR. MURRAY: Any questions about the costs of these processes?

DR. VENTER: We're trying with Exxon to create a new biocrude out of carbon dioxide that would go right into the refineries. So the cost of these facilities, the cost of the biocrude, has to be on the order of what we would get from oil. Imagine if we and others are really successful at this—this becomes an alternative for oil that could actually lower the price of oil.

MR. MURRAY: You have a project with BP as well?

DR. VENTER: The BP program was to look for new biology deep in the Earth, to take coal as the starting material, metabolize the coal into methane in the Earth and just isolate the natural gas. When we started, we had no idea the extent of biology a mile deep in the Earth. It was stunning. We found the same density of organisms that we find in the ocean, all new types of organisms. We have hundreds of them that eat coal and coal substrates to produce different molecules. So we've been characterizing this biology now to see how scalable it would be to just change some of this biology and get a lot more natural gas out.

MR. MURRAY: Are there other industries that ought to be partnering with you? Utilities? Car companies?

DR. VENTER: We are having discussions. Being able to write the genetic code is something we think will have implications to every human endeavor. So we're looking at far-ranging things from whole new ways to make vaccines, new ways to make pharmaceuticals. We can create whole new foods.


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