Tuesday, July 14, 2009


A developing story in a market I don't normally take very seriously:
Oil giant Exxon Mobil Corp. is making a major jump into renewable energy with a $600 million investment in algae-based biofuels. Exxon is joining a biotech company, Synthetic Genomics Inc., to research and develop next-generation biofuels produced from sunlight, water and waste carbon dioxide by photosynthetic pond scum.
Biofuels don't generally interest me, particularly those that focus on synthetic oils like biodiesel. I don't think these types of approaches will ever be economical without heavy subsidy, which is to say, they are a dubious approach. However, the mention of Synthetic Genomics grabbed my attention, as the name rang a bell. Sure enough, it was the company I was thinking about:
"We're not claiming to know all the answers," said Craig Venter, founder and CEO of Synthetic Genomics, which has so far done early work on algae strains. "There are different approaches to what is truly economically scalable, so we're testing things and giving a new reality to the timelines and expectations of what it takes to have a global impact on fuel supply."
(emphasis mine)
When Craig Venter is working on something, Pay Attention! This guy is serious. He's no ordinary scientist. Not only is he brilliant, he has a keen eye for economics. He doesn't fool around with things that aren't likely to work. He came up with the "shotgun sequencing" approach that finished the Human Genome Project literally years ahead of schedule and way under budget, pretty much embarrassing everyone else involved. Everyone else was sequencing linearly from the ends of chromosomes, which is analogous to slurping up a single strand of spaghetti of insane length an inch at a time. The solution he used: make several copies of the thing, sample the whole thing randomly and sequence everything at once, assembling the sequence later. Analogy: take ten identical, super-long spaghetti strands, throw them into a blender set to puree, and guzzle the spaghetti-shake in two seconds. The genius of the approach is not so much in the actual techniques he developed, but in the recognition that the other approach was wasteful in its application of labor and time, both of which are far more valuable than most scientists tend to realize, especially in relation to physical capital. Venter saw what the problem needed: less time and labor, more capital! That was the real genius. I have little doubt he will one day win the Nobel Prize. Nowadays, he works on making "synthetic life." Why? Not because it is cool, though it is. It is because he has made another realization: the reason that the biosciences have fallen flat on their faces so far, despite their awesome potential, is because they are so inefficient and economically uncompetitive in the real world. Actually, a good number of people realize this; they just don't know what to do about it. Venter thinks he has the answer. He doesn't just want to make just any life form, he wants to make the minimal life form. A life form that will require the very least to sustain its existence. A life form that he can modify to produce whatever material he likes. Like oil. If he can succeed, he may open the floodgates of a global biotech revolution, depending on just how cheap it is to grow and sustain this little synthetic beastie in comparison to traditional plant design and engineering. Will it work? I don't know. But when Venter is involved in something, I'm keeping an eye on it.

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