Craig Venter wants to save the world

No one grandstands quite like Craig Venter. Whether its leading a team racing the government to the first human genome sequenced, succeeding, or admitting that his team beat the government by sequencing his own genome, this guy has style like few others in science. And while physicists at least have the reputation of having large egos installed as part of their graduate training, Venter’s ego is apparently physicist-sized, at least according to Wired and Forbes.

That being said, there is something phenomenally inspiring about the folks who have no shame about tackling the really big problems. This is a constructive sort of hubris, the kind that Larry Wall correctly identified as a virtue. Venter’s glorious hubris was on display this week at the TED conference, where he announced that he was working on a project to engineer a bacteria that turns carbon dioxide into methane and octane and that he expects results within 18 months on these fourth generation fuels.

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Unlike his work on completely synthetic lifeforms, this project is focused on modifying bacteria that already exist rather than building an organism from scratch. There are a lot of microorganisms that secrete hydrocarbons – methane is a common byproduct of bacterial decomposition of organic matter, yeasts will secrete ethanol, and according to the article, there are strains that will secrete octane, although not in industrially useful quantities. Venter’s goal is to solve that problem.

This is not a cheap undertaking. On average, a bacterial genome will have between 1 and 10 million base pairs. According to syntheticbiology.org, the cost of a gene is about $1 per base pair. (Checking the price list at Genemed Synthesis indicates that the previous figure is likely a bulk deal.) At that cost, its going to take a lot of dollars to iterate the project – even if they aren’t starting from scratch.

It’s interesting to me to compare this to the folks engineering algae for triglyceride production for biodiesel. Clearly, if Venter can make these bacteria produce industrially significant quantities, I predict he will win the market, since synthesizing octane directly involves less manufacturing than taking triglycerides and making the methyl esters of fatty acids (and, of course, the methanol also has to be synthesized somehow.) There’s also the issue that gasoline engines, despite their inefficiency, far outnumber diesel engines.

As an aside, If efficiency were in issue and diesels appeared to be a good solution for that, then there’s an interesting synergy possible, where Venter’s bacteria would produce methane that could be steam reformed into methanol for the methyl ester production. There might be an issue with the energy cost of the steam reformation process (although its unlikely, since that’s how most methanol is made today) and system losses in the extra processing step, but I’ll assume that if biodiesel can be made for parity or a small premium over petrodiesel, that its not that big of a deal.

Venter himself points out that once the techniques to improve production volumes are worked out, lots of other higher hydrocarbons can be synthesized. At this point, the vision is no longer unique. Lots of companies are working on bio-synthesis techniques to make industrial chemicals, including DuPont, which has invested heavily in such technology. This raises the question of whether what Venter is trying to do is technologically that unique. (Clearly, his product target is ambitious in any case.) My sense is that his approach is similar, but the scope of the modifications he’s making to the bacteria may be larger. If he’s successful in doing this once, he may solve a large part of the carbon crisis. If he’s successful in doing it twice, it will likely be the beginning of a revolution in large scale synthetic biology.

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