Craig Venter: Genomics vs. Oil Economics

VenterJ. Craig Venter may be known for splicing genes, but he’s not one to mince words. Speaking in San Francisco last night as part of the Long Now Foundation’s lecture series, Venter implored members of the audience to not let the failures of first-generation biofuels shake their faith in biofuels as a whole. “Corn-to-ethanol just is not going to get us there. It’s a negative carbon balance and has been heavily subsidized by all of us,” he said. “This is just the wrong experiment taking us very much in the wrong direction.”

Venter is trying to tackle the problem from another angle, using “biofuels by design.” He says his own startup, Synthetic Genomics, could deliver in as little as 18 months a biofuel that turns carbon dioxide into octane.

He also during the talk delivered his usual verbal jabs aimed at the traditional industries that he hopes to disrupt. He quipped that in a meeting with oil executives he told them if they don’t want to invest to solve the problem they helped create, then he would be perfectly happy developing the solution without them. That’s classic Venter.

One of the last slides of his presentation also listed the goals of his genomic experiments, which included nothing short of replacing the petrolchemical industry, advancing genomics as a major source of energy, discovering antibiotics and vaccines, and oh yes, manufacturing life. Right, all in a good day’s work.

Venter wasn’t completely anti-fossil fuels in his speech. He’s currently working with BP to develop a microrobe that would metabolize earthbound coal into methane. “This doesn’t stop taking carbon out of the ground,” he conceded. “But it’s about a ten-fold improvement over mining coal and burning it.”

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