Friday, September 10, 2010

Algae: in your stomach and in your tank!

Craig Venter is probably the biggest, or at least best-known biodreamer of our time.  A recent story in the NYTimes reports his (modest) attempt to create living cells, like algae say, that can be grown in tanks to replace fossil fuel.

Now Dr. Venter is turning from reading the genetic code to an even more audacious goal: writing it. At Synthetic Genomics, he wants to create living creatures — bacteria, algae or even plants — that are designed from the DNA up to carry out industrial tasks and displace the fuels and chemicals that are now made from fossil fuels.
“Designing and building synthetic cells will be the basis of a new industrial revolution,” Dr. Venter says. “The goal is to replace the entire petrochemical industry.”

Exxon has been saying "Put a tiger in your tank" for decades, but will it seem as sexy to say "Burn your bugs!"?   Chemical life, artificially engineered but self-replicating like real life--it will actually be real life, would presumably provide a sustainable source of solar energy converted to portable energy.

But wait!  What if we could make it taste like beef, as Venter asks?  You could SuperSize your AlgaeBurger!  Could the mustard and ketchup industry keep up?  If so, that would have an additional, presumably positive ramification:  Vegans could BurgerSize with a completely clear conscience, too!  Probably even Jaynes, unless killing algae to eat them would be viewed as immoral.

This is science fiction today, but if it comes to pass it would be quite important.  But it would not be a conceptual breakthrough but simply a feat of bioengineering ('simply' in the sense that like GM plants or many other kinds of recombinant DNA technology, it's within the realm of normal science). 

The idea of miracles in a tank has appeal to our age, but a certain Thomas Malthus' ideas will sooner or later rear their heads. More food and more fuel will lead to more people, better fed and longer-lived.  Unless Craig can make algae that produce water and apartments, not all of our problems will be solved.

At least that's what we think.  He thinks bigger than anyone, so we're sure he'll have solutions for those problems, too.