The man who would be the “oil king”

It’s no secret that ramping up (pdf) corn ethanol production has been rife with problems. The net energy gain from corn-based ethanol is pretty small at best—its corrosive impact on most pipelines usually requires you to truck it to market. And, of course, the use of corn for fuel has been driving up food and ...

601097_070622_venter_05.jpg
601097_070622_venter_05.jpg

It's no secret that ramping up (pdf) corn ethanol production has been rife with problems. The net energy gain from corn-based ethanol is pretty small at best—its corrosive impact on most pipelines usually requires you to truck it to market. And, of course, the use of corn for fuel has been driving up food and feed prices.

But I think it's best to think of corn as the beginning of the ethanol journey, not the destination. There is a furious R&D effort to develop enzymes—the bug or bugs—that can be used to break down cellulosic materials cheaply.

Now, Craig Venter, the man best known for his controversial for-profit contribution to the human genome mapping race, claims to be on the brink of producing a synthetic bug that can do just that, and more. BusinessWeek reported last week that Venter "believes he is within weeks or months of creating the world's first free-living artificial organism in his laboratory." His bug could potentially clean up dirty fossil fuels and help make ethanol.

It’s no secret that ramping up (pdf) corn ethanol production has been rife with problems. The net energy gain from corn-based ethanol is pretty small at best—its corrosive impact on most pipelines usually requires you to truck it to market. And, of course, the use of corn for fuel has been driving up food and feed prices.

But I think it’s best to think of corn as the beginning of the ethanol journey, not the destination. There is a furious R&D effort to develop enzymes—the bug or bugs—that can be used to break down cellulosic materials cheaply.

Now, Craig Venter, the man best known for his controversial for-profit contribution to the human genome mapping race, claims to be on the brink of producing a synthetic bug that can do just that, and more. BusinessWeek reported last week that Venter “believes he is within weeks or months of creating the world’s first free-living artificial organism in his laboratory.” His bug could potentially clean up dirty fossil fuels and help make ethanol.

In his typical down-to-earth fashion, Venter jokes that he’s “going from the gene king to the oil king.” It’s unlikely, though, that any concrete application for his new bug will emerge for quite some time.

But this is about much more than any particular technology, or even the energy business as a whole. Some say Venter is out to become the “Bill Gates” of artificial life, which has huge ethical and legal implications. Arthur L. Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, tells BusinessWeek that synthetic biologists may be “manipulating nature without knowing where they are going…. There are arrogant scientists, and our friend Venter may be one of them.” Time will tell if Caplan’s fears are vindicated.

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