The father of genomics and the founder of synthetic biology startup Synthetic Genomics, Craig Venter, is now officially god. Well, he and a team of researchers at the J Craig Venter institute have successfully created the first synthetic bacterial cell. While the team has been working on this for years, this is the final step in the process that has created the first cell in the world to be controlled completely by a synthetic genome.
Yes, folks, that means it’s the first artificial life form. Here’s how it works: The researchers built a synthetic chromosome and inserted it into a living bacterial cell, where it — for the first time and published in the journal Science today — took over the cell and became a new life form. The researchers had been able to create the synthetic chromosome since 2008, but hadn’t been able to activate it in the cell, until now.
Steve Jurvetson, managing director of Draper Fisher Jurvetson, which is an investor in Venter’s Synthetic Genomics, talked about this process and how the startup has been using IT to help create artificial life at our Green:Net conference (see video clip here). Frickin’ crazy stuff.
Venter has spent the last 15 years on genome sequencing and as he said at a talk I saw him give back in 2007, he’s been trying to “bring biology into a digital world.” He previously jump-started the race between the government and his company Celera to produce the first full transcription of a human genome. He then sequenced his own genome and wrote a memoir about it.
No doubt the media will be exploding shortly (the press conference just ended) on the biological, ethical and legal implications of this work. So for now I’ll just stick to how this breakthrough could effect climate change.
Synthetic Genomics was founded back in 2005 to commercialize Venter’s work, and has been focusing on a variety of applications for its genetic technology, including creating algae-based biofuel. Synthetic Genomics has raised money from investors including venture capital firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson and oil giants BP and Exxon Mobil.
Dr. Ari Patrinos, president of Venter’s bioenergy startup Synthetic Genomics, explained to me back in 2007 that a synthetic life form could be uniquely suited to help fight climate change and aid in uncovering new energy sources. The idea is that a designer organism can 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, Patrinos said back then, but a synthetic organism can be created to just perform one function only.
So Synthetic Genomics could theoretically create an algae strain that could be the most efficient in the world at consuming CO2 and also at being used as a transportation fuel. Synthetic Genomics CFO Chuck McBride told me about two years ago that the startup could possibly be able to deliver a biofuel that turns carbon dioxide into octane in as little as 18 months, so Synthetic Genomics commercial biofuel could be getting pretty close to actual production. Venter said last year that the startup had successfully engineered algae to secrete hydrocarbons similar to “intermediary strains in a [oil] refinery.”
A year ago ExxonMobil said it had plans to invest more than $600 million in a new photosynthetic algae biofuels program with Venter, including more than $300 million for Synthetic Genomics itself. The idea behind the R&D program with Exxon, which will be based in a greenhouse facility in San Diego, Calif., is to collect and test thousands of strains of algae to find the most efficient and economical strains for production of transportation fuels. While Venter’s team will focus primarily on microengineering, Exxon will help with the macroengineering for production systems and integration needed for commercialization.
As Venter is well aware — and has repeatedly stated — the major hurdle for his algae fuel project will be scale. If algae fuel companies can’t generate billions of gallons of fuel, then they are “just playing” and “wasting investors money,” he said at the Fortune Brainstorm Green conference earlier this year.
While at one point Venter had a habit of saying he would overturn the oil industry, his startup needs the oil companies to help reach those sheer massive scaling needs.
But clearly he’s gotten the oil partners to sign on, and with this breakthrough announcement today, the oil firms are probably pretty glad they got on board. Other companies that are trying to deliver algae fuel for transportation include Sapphire Energy, Solazyme and Aurora Biofuels (here’s 15 Algae Startups Bringing Pond Scum to Fuel Tanks).
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