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9-Misc: J. Craig Venter's next little thing



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TITLE:  J. Craig Venter's Next Little Thing:
        The man who mapped the human genome has a new focus:
        using microbes to create alternative fuels.
SOURCE: Washington Post, USA, by Michael S. Rosenwald
        http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/02/26/
AR2006022600932_pf.html
DATE:   27 Feb 2006

------------------ archive:  http://www.genet-info.org/ ------------------


J. Craig Venter's Next Little Thing: The man who mapped the human genome
has a new focus: using microbes to create alternative fuels.

J. Craig Venter, maverick biologist, wants to cure our addiction to oil.
To do so, he proposes creating a designer microbe -- the heart of a
biological engine -- from scratch, then adding genes culled from the sea
to turn crops such as switch grass and cornstalks into ethanol.

While he's at it, he'd like to modify or devise microorganisms to
produce a steady stream of hydrogen.

Either could prompt a major shift in the economics of the energy
industry and in the process bring Venter to a secondary goal: showing
the world he can be as successful running a company as he was at
sequencing human DNA.

"We are on a crusade as much as it is an economic goal," Venter said.
"This is one of those crusades that only works if it becomes really
profitable."

Five years after antagonizing government scientists while racing them to
map the human genome, Venter is back, making the typically bold
statements that have long polarized opinion about him. Either he is one
of this era's most electrifying scientists, or he's one of the most
maddening. He is apt in conversation to compare himself to Robin Hood.
Or Darwin.

"Yes, Craig confronts," said Alfonso Romo Garza, a Mexican billionaire,
controller of a decent chunk of the world's commercial vegetable seeds
and a backer of Venter's latest undertaking. "Of course, he's
antagonistic. He's controversial. But I love controversial people
because those are the people who change the world."

Bearded from a three-year, Darwinesque yacht trip around the world,
Venter also now sports an extensive collection of genetic material
scooped from the sea on his journey -- and that's the raw material for
his alternative fuel project. With $15 million from Garza, he has
launched a new company in Rockville called Synthetic Genomics Inc.

It is a small firm with classic Venter ambition. Create life. Use it to
make fuel.

There are caveats, to be sure.

Venter's business career made him rich, but his record running Celera
Genomics Corp. was spotty. The company's original business plan --
selling access to the genetic data Venter helped develop -- faltered
because the information became public through the government's efforts.

Celera has since waxed and waned with other business plans that haven't
yet worked out.

He insists this time that things have changed.

"I started Celera because I wanted to map the human genome," he said.
"It's different now. We actually do have a great idea for a business."

There are a number of other companies that say they are ahead of Venter
in the quest to use biotechnology to make energy, and they contend that
they have more near-term and less complicated methods. Vinod Khosla, co-
founder of Sun Microsystems Inc. and a prominent Silicon Valley venture
capitalist who has turned his investment focus to new energy, said of
Venter's new company, "There are too many technical risks cascading together."

But Venter loves the challenge. The formation of the new company
solidifies ideas he has been investigating for several years through his
various research foundations in Rockville. The Venter Institute and the
Institute for Genomic Research have received several Energy Department
grants to explore using genomics -- the study of genetic material in the
chromosomes of organisms -- for energy purposes. Venter launched the new
business with his longtime collaborator, Hamilton O. Smith, who won a
Nobel Prize for physiology and medicine and is a noted expert in DNA
manipulation techniques.

Perhaps Venter's biggest personnel coup to date was the hiring earlier
this month of Aristides Patrinos, who directed the Energy Department's
biological and environmental research and launched its efforts to solve
energy and environmental problems using microbes. Patrinos is an
influential proponent of new energy technologies and a force behind
President Bush's recent focus on innovative fuel production in the State
of the Union address. Patrinos, whom Venter describes as his last friend
in government, led the federally funded Human Genome Project, which
raced Venter to decode human DNA.

"I think it's a very significant message to the world that Ari has
agreed to take on this challenge to build this enterprise," Venter said.

So far, the company has raised about $30 million, according to
Securities and Exchange Commission filings. Venter has generally avoided
taking venture capital money in order to maintain tight control,
something he didn't have at Celera, where he was ultimately fired.

At this point, Synthetic Genomics is a virtual company, housed at the
sprawling Rockville headquarters that is home to Venter's institutes.
The company is mostly using Venter's existing research staff. Venter
said there could be a significant ramp-up soon, including separate
office space nearby, if development talks with major energy firms are
successful. Venter said he is in discussions with several companies.

Venter is convinced that "genomics is going to do for the energy and
chemical field what it did in the early 1990s for medical biotechnology."

In the case of energy, the problems are well known. Oil prices have
skyrocketed. There are national security concerns over relying so
heavily on foreign oil sources. Energy companies are pursuing any number
of alternatives, including increasing production of ethanol.

The problem with current production methods is that they rely on using
corn kernels, which are converted into sugar, fermented to produce
alcohol and then distilled into ethanol. Meeting the country's energy
needs using that method could eventually strain the food supply,
particularly for animals that feed off corn.

Ethanol can be produced other ways, though it is more difficult. One way
is to use plant matter such as switch grass, cornstalks or corn husks
and break it down into cellulose using a combination of enzymes. Until
energy prices skyrocketed, that option was far more expensive than using
oil, and the cost of building a plant was prohibitive. More modern
technology is bringing the cost down, and biotech companies are lining
up to advance the technology even further. There are no commercial-scale
facilities online yet, though one in Spain could open this fall.

Patrinos thinks Synthetic Genomics can reduce costs even further by
using either a soup of microbes or genetically designed ones to perform,
in essentially one place, all of the biological functions needed to
break down the plant material and turn it into ethanol.

"Anytime you add steps, you add costs," Patrinos said. "The ideal
situation would essentially just be one big vat, where in one place you
just stick the raw material -- it could be switch grass -- and out the
other end comes fuel that you could drive it on to the gas station."

This will not happen tomorrow. Venter's scientists will need at least
several years to sift through the millions of organisms he collected on
his around-the-world yacht trip, which ended last month. The hope is
that something in that menagerie will provide the key to more efficient
energy.

As evidence of what he thinks he can deliver, Venter pointed to DuPont
Co.'s efforts to use organisms in somewhat similar ways. Scientists at
the chemical company, in a project dating to 1995, have genetically
modified E. coli germs in such a way that they turn corn into
propanediol, a compound typically made from petrochemicals that can be
used to toughen fabrics such as polyester. DuPont will open a $100
million plant to make the material later this year.

It is also working on many other projects, from energy to hair care and
skin care. "Imagine dipping your entire hand into a jar of color that
only sticks to the nail surface, not the skin, not the nail bed," a
company official said.

Biotech changed the way drugs are developed. For Venter and others,
there is more work to be done.

"Sometimes you get a new idea that is better than the old idea," he
said. "It wouldn't be the first time I've done that."


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