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What 'synthetic life' could mean for the energy industry

New research from J. Craig Venter's crew replicates and enlivens a bacterial genome. Will an algae genome follow to spark the next generation of biofuels?

Yesterday Andrew Nusca discussed how geneticists have duplicated life in an empty cell by adding lab-made DNA to it (see Scientists unveil first self-replicating, synthetic bacterial cell ). The idea of synthesizing an organism (in this case, bacteria) from four bottles of chemicals via a computerized DNA code recipe is pretty mind-blowing.

Sorry, very mind-blowing.

J. Craig Venter Institute researchers published their work in the journal Science yesterday.

For what purposes we come to use—or not use—this technology will no doubt stir many philosophical, moral, legal and ethical pots. But this is an energy blog, so let's discuss those possible implications.

The energy application spoken of most so far is the large-scale production of algae, which could potentially capture hydrocarbons and produce renewable algal biofuel. Algae is not a significant food source (for humans) so the biofuel would not compete directly with agriculture.

As a photosynthetic organism, algae thrives on sunlight and carbon dioxide. Taking waste CO2 from power plants and adding it to biomass production ponds or photobioreactors could give purpose to the pollution by helping nourish the algae. Burning the resulting biomass would release that CO2, which ideally would be captured and kept within the fuel production cycle.

Last summer ExxonMobil filed a contract with Synthetic Genomics Inc. to provide up to $600 million for algal fuel production. Founded by J. Craig Venter, the company has given $30 million toward this research since 2005.

Meanwhile, the are some who don't think synthetic algae is necessary to create substitutes for natural crude oil.

Nicholas Wade reports in the New York Times:

Some [scientists] regard this approach as unpromising because it will take years to design new organisms, and meanwhile progress toward making biofuels is already being achieved with conventional genetic engineering approaches in which existing organisms are modified a few genes at a time.

10.8 million base pairs comprise the genome of the bacterium Mycoplasma mycoides, which the study replicated. Algae genomes would be longer.

Craig Venter discusses the research in a interview with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, mentioning possible energy applications around minute 4:30 in the video below:

Image: Electron micrograph via Tom Deerinck and Mark Ellisman, National Center for Microscopy and Imaging Research, University of California at San Diego.
Via: Dot Earth

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com