Name: J. Craig Venter
Title: CEO, Synthetic Genomics
Location: La Jolla, Calif.

Why algae?
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.

Everybody is looking for a naturally occurring alga 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 to being able to rewrite the genetic code and get cells to do what we want them to do.

Why do this? What’s the motivation?
We all live on the same planet. The bad cliché is: we’re all in the same lifeboat. If somebody takes a power drill and drills a hole in the bottom of the boat, we’re all screwed. Sooner or later the oil and coal industries won’t have any choice. The forward-looking companies are trying to get a real jump on that now. None of these solutions are things where you just pick up a book and find the solution. It is long-term research.

What are the big hurdles?
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. The thing that will make the difference is the engineered cell, a cell that can produce 10 to 100 times as much.

What about nutrients?
We need three major ingredients: CO2, sunlight and sea­water, aside from having the facility and refinery to convert all those things. We’re looking at sites around the world that have the major ingredients.

How long will this take?
To us, this is a long-term plan. It’s a 10-year plan. We’re not promising new fuel for your car in the next 18 months.

What was the bigger challenge: the human genome or algae?
I did [the human genome] in nine months. But there are 500 different parameters in the [algal] cells and in the systems. Absolutely, algae are the bigger challenge. It also has a lot bigger implications for the world if we’re successful.

Given algae’s checkered past, what makes you confident of success?
I like to win arguments by having the data. People making extraordinary claims have the obligation to provide extraordinary evidence that their claims are true. Right now nobody has the data in any of these fields. We have some new tools to approach these same problems. Algae have had a lousy history. There is no guarantee we will suc­ceed, either.