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How Artificial Life Could Re-energize the Planet

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Craig Venter, the high-profile genetic researcher and cleantech entrepreneur, is possibly weeks away from announcing that he and a group of scientists have created the first new artificial life form on Earth, according to the Guardian. As in, today I made: a) brownies, b) a blog post, or c) a new artificial life form. Venter’s process involves building a synthetic chromosome and inserting it into a living bacterial cell, where it is expected to take over the cell and become a new life form.

Um, the idea is actually so mind-boggling that we’re not fully prepared to lead you into an ethical and scientific discussion of it. But we did talk with Dr. Ari Patrinos, president of Venter’s bioenergy startup Synthetic Genomics, about why synthetic life forms could help fight climate change and aid in uncovering new energy sources.

Speaking from his lunch break at the J. Craig Venter Institute’s annual meeting Monday afternoon, Patrinos explained that a designer organism could be developed to only perform certain tasks, like converting sugar to ethanol, which would result in a very efficient process. Natural microbes have other life priorities, like replication, he says, but a synthetic organism can be created to just perform one function.

Synthetic Genomics is already working on designing more efficient biofuels, improving feed stocks for biofuels and increasing methane that can be produced from coal beds. Using synthetic microbes could just make these tasks that much more efficient, Patrinos says.

How far away is this reality? “Within 10 years,” he told us. He expects this field to deliver significant amounts of environmentally friendly and renewable energy sources. Ethical and technical hurdles aside, biological processes like this could provide a real disruptive breakthrough.

In a recent Wall Street Journal post, Juan Enriquez, co-founder of Synthetic Genomics, gives a good layman’s description of why “biology and energy are symbiotic:”

“Hydrocarbons are, in essence, sunlight concentrated in plant, animal or bacterial matter. Be it coal, gas or oil, what we are extracting and burning is bioenergy concentrated in carbon. Instead of considering energy as a biological process, we have regarded it as a matter of chemical engineering. . .These means and methods are no longer sufficient, much less efficient. We have to change how we approach energy production. That approach must begin with biology.” — Juan Enriquez, co-founder of Synthetic Genomics.