Microbes will be the (human) food- and fuel-makers of the future, if J. Craig Venter has his way. The man responsible for one of the original sequences of the human genome as well as the team that brought you the first living cell running on human-made DNA now hopes to harness algae to make everything humanity needs. All it takes is a little genomic engineering.
"Nothing new has to be invented. We just have to combine [genes] in a way that nature has not done before. We're speeding up evolution by billions of years," Venter told an energy conference on October 18 at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C. "It's hard to imagine a part of humanity not substantially impacted."
Venter turned his attention to the genetic manipulation of algae after a two-year cruise to sample DNA in the ocean. The goal was to harvest the building blocks of the future for a biology that has been converted from the bases A, C, G and T into 1's and 0's—a digitized biology. He found that most of the millions of genes collected came from algae, one of the tinier organisms on the planet but one that already has an outsized planetary impact, providing more than a third of the oxygen we breathe.
Venter is looking to boost that impact further. His reengineered photosynthetic cells would take in carbon dioxide and sunlight and spew out hydrocarbons ready for the ExxonMobil refinery (the oil giant that has provided Venter's company Synthetic Genomics with $300 million in funding to date). In the process, the algae will turn a problem—CO2 causing climate change—and transform it into a solution—renewable fuels and slowed global warming. "Trying to capture CO2 and bury it is just dumb; it's going to be the renewable feedstock for the future," he said.
His commercial enterprise, Synthetic Genomics, has now also formed a new company with Mexican investment firm Plenus dubbed Agradis. Given algae's multibillion-year track record with photosynthesis and genetic experimentation Agradis's purpose is to turn that genetic cornucopia into improvements in agricultural crops, whether corn or canola—as well as use algae as a model for testing various new genetic combinations. A similar partnership between Monsanto and algae company Sapphire Energy will "use our algae platform that we developed to mine for genes that can transfer into their core agricultural products," explained Tim Zenk, Sapphire's vice president for corporate affairs in a prior interview with Scientific American. "When you do genetic screening in algae, you get hundreds of millions of traits in the screen and that accelerates the chances of finding something that can be transferred."
If that's not enough, Venter sees a role for synthetic biology in food beyond crops and livestock—specifically the growing hunger for meat around the world. "It takes 10 kilograms of grain to produce one kilogram of beef, 15 liters of water to get one kilogram of beef, and those cows produce a lot of methane," another potent greenhouse gas, Venter observed. "Why not get rid of the cows?" The replacement: meat grown in a test tube from microbes thanks to synthetic biology.
It's not likely you'll be buying microbial meat in the immediate future, but it's also clear that biology should not be overlooked as a font of solutions for that future. "The problem with existing biology is you change only one or two genes at a time," he noted of today's genetic engineering. "We're building a robot to make a million chromosomes a day and be self-learning. … The only limitation is our knowledge of biology."
Scientific American spoke with Venter about his hopes for algae and synthetic biology.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
Looking at the yield of different agricultural crops, none of them is very impressive compared with what needs to be done [to replace oil]. Then you look at the potential output from algae, and it's one to two orders of magnitude better than the best agricultural system. If we were trying to make liquid transportation fuels to replace all transportation fuels in the U.S. and you try and do that from corn it would take a facility three times the size of the continental U.S. If you try to do it from algae, it's a facility roughly the size of the state of Maryland. One is doable and the other's just absurd, but we don't have an algae lobby.
It's been tried before, going all the way back to the turn of the last century. It's not a new notion to use algae to try to do something. But nobody's achieved the necessary level of production. Everybody is looking for a naturally occurring algae that is going to be a miracle cell to save the world and, after a century of looking, people still haven't found it. We hope we're different. The [genetic] tools give us a new approach: being able to rewrite the genetic code and get cells to do what we want them to do.
What are the big hurdles?
Everybody trying to grow stuff has all the same challenges. On the growth side, what we're doing with the [Synthetic Genomics] Exxon program, we're actually testing every technology on the growth side. Then there's the cell biology side, the manufacturing side. How do you manufacture on the scale of multiple–square-mile facilities and billions of gallons of liquid hydrocarbons that can go into ExxonMobil refineries? Half the money of the $600 million on the table is going to major engineering tests and concepts.
It's just the size, the expense—billion-dollar–plus facilities. Getting algae that are really robust and can withstand true industrial conditions on a commercial basis. You can't afford to shut down a plant for contamination. Most algae growers have to do that at a fairly frequent pace.
On the cell biology and strain development side of things, we have a large, greenhouse test facility in La Jolla [Calif.] We don't claim to have instant answers. We are talking a systematic scientific approach to trying all the past technologies and new ones with new twists. The thing that will make the difference is the engineered cell, cells that can produce 10 to 100 [times] as much. The same genetic engineering and genome engineering we have, we can make cells that are resistant to viruses.
The scientific breakthrough that we made early—that attracted Exxon—we engineered [a] cell to pump hydrocarbons out of the cell. Algae is a farming problem: growing, harvesting, extracting. It's a work in progress, and we're working hard.