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The next little thing: replacing oil

J. Craig Venter is back with a new project: designing a bioengineered microbe that will allow sea plants to generate ethanol. And he's picked a top government scientist to join him.

J. Craig Venter, the mecurial founder of Celera who can at least take credit for speeding up the pace of progress on the Human Genome, is back with a new project, the Washington Post reports: designing a bioengineered microbe that will allow sea plants to generate ethanol.

And Venter has a strong government science connection for his new venture, Synthetic Genomics.

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.

The basic idea on ethanol production is to genetically modify plants in a way that simplifies the process of breaking them down into cellulose.

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."

 As big a challenge as that may be, Synthetics sights are even bigger: the creation of bio-factories that could spit out a wide variety of necessary stuff. From the company description:

The founders of Synthetic Genomics, Inc. believe now is an opportune time to develop biologically-based software. Scientists at the Venter Institute have made significant progress in building synthetic chromosomes.  In 2003, they successfully built in vitro a fully synthetic Phi-X174 chromosome in just two weeks. This substantial scientific breakthrough is a necessary first step in the ability to create highly engineered, efficient bio-production capabilities.

The initial step for the Company will be to develop a minimal genome that can provide an operating system for biologically-based software.  Work has been ongoing at Synthetic Genomics, Inc. in conjunction with the Venter Institute, to remove genes from simple organisms to identify the minimum set of genes necessary for an organism to survive in a controlled environment. Synthetic Genomics, Inc. intends to synthesize the proposed minimal genome, add the desired biological capabilities, and insert it into an environment that allows metabolic activity and replication – the creation of a synthetic cell.