Designer Microbes

Genetic engineers think they can create synthetic life-forms that will let us grow energy as easily as we do food

" 1 A #e view the genome as the software, or even the operat-V V ing system, of the cell," said J. Craig Venter. It's time for an upgrade, he suggested. Venter was preaching to the choir: a large group of biologists at the Synthetic Biology 2.0 conference this past May. Many of the scientists there have projects to genetically rewire organisms so extensively that the resulting cells would qualify as synthetic species. Venter, who gained fame and fortune for the high-speed methods he helped to develop to sequence the human genome, recently founded a company, Synthetic Genomics, to commercialize custom-built cells. "We think this field has tremendous potential to replace the petrochemical industry, possibly within a decade," he said.

That assessment may be overly optimistic; no one has yet assembled a single cell from scratch. But Venter reported rapid progress on his team's efforts to create artificial chromosomes that contain just the minimum set of genes required for self-sustaining life within a controlled, nutrient-rich environment. "The first synthetic prokaryotic cell [lacking a nucleus] will definitely happen within the next two years," he predicted. "And synthetic eukaryotic genomes [for cells with nuclei] will happen within a decade at most."

Venter envisions novel microbes that capture carbon dioxide from the smokestack of a power plant and turn it into natural gas for the boiler. "There are already thousands, perhaps millions, of organisms on our planet that know how to do this," Venter said. Although none of those species may be suited for life in a power plant, engineers could borrow their genetic circuits for new creations. "We also have biological systems under construction that are trying to produce hydrogen directly from sunlight, using photosynthesis," he added.

Steven Chu, director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, announced that his lab is readying a proposal for a major project to harness the power of the sun and turn it into fuels for transportation. With the tools of genetic engineering, Chu explained, "we can work on modifying plants and algaes to make them self-fertilizing and resistant to drought and pests." The novel crops would offer high yields of cellulose,

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