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9-Misc: Gene scientist's new venture: Create life, use it to make fuel

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TITLE:  Gene scientist's new venture: Create life, use it to make fuel
SOURCE: The Washington Post, USA, by Michael S. Rosenwald

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Gene scientist's new venture: Create life, use it to make fuel

Genomics pioneer J. Craig Venter speaks at a gathering in New York
recently. Five years after antagonizing government scientists while
racing them to map the human genome, Venter is back, making the typically
bold statements about his newest venture.

Maverick biologist J. Craig Venter 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," he 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.

"Craig confronts"

"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 sports an extensive collection of genetic material scooped
from the sea on his journey -- the raw material for his alternative fuel
project. With $15 million from Garza, he has launched a new company in
Rockville, Md., called Synthetic Genomics.

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

"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."

A number of other companies say they are ahead of Venter in the quest to
use biotechnology to make energy, and they contend they have more near-
term and less complicated methods.

Vinod Khosla, co-founder of Sun Microsystems 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 new company solidifies ideas he has
been investigating for several years through his various research foundations.

The Venter Institute and the Institute for Genomic Research have received
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 longtime collaborator, Hamilton
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 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 led the federally funded Human Genome Project, which raced
Venter to decode human DNA.

$30 million in funding

So far, Synthetic Genomics has raised about $30 million, according to
Securities and Exchange Commission filings.

Venter generally has avoided taking venture-capital money to maintain
tight control, something he didn't have at Celera, where he was
ultimately fired.

Current production methods of ethanol 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

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. Technology
is bringing the cost down, and biotech companies are lining up to advance
the technology further.

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 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."

Venter's scientists will need at least several years to sift through the
millions of organisms 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.

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

European NGO Network on Genetic Engineering

Hartmut MEYER (Mr)
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