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Craig Venter and the fourth generation of designer fuels

Posted by: Helen Walters on February 28, 2008

Just had a brief chat with genetic scientist, Craig Venter, after his presentation at this morning’s TED session, entitled What Is Life? He laid down a challenge: “I don’t want to be known as the Gene King any more!” So we’ll be chatting more post-conference to delve deeper into his latest proposition, the development of synthetic cells — and their impact on developing the fourth generation of designer fuels.

It’ll be tough to get people thinking beyond Venter in terms of genetics. After all, he’s best known as the man who led the team that sequenced the human genome, back in 1995, and he published a complete diploid genome — the newest stage in human genome sequencing, in September 2007. He’s a true pioneer in genomic research.

But Venter has a point, and now is the time to talk about his work and research in terms practicalities. As he put it, earlier experiments such as corn to ethanol or sugar to higher value fuels such as octane or butanol simply haven’t worked.

“The only way we think biology can have major impact — without increasing the cost of food or limiting its availability — is to start with carbon dioxide as a feedstock,” he said in his talk. Natural photosynthesis, in other words, simply doesn’t cut it.

Of course, carbon dioxide can’t be captured out of thin air, and harnessing carbon dioxide involves carbon sequestration. That requires getting business interested, involved and invested. Venter’s just back from the World Economic Forum, where he confessed he didn’t have the best time. “At Davos, I got depressed,” he said. “It was clear that most of executives there buy into the CO2 issue as a pain for them. The consensus was that nothing will change in 40 years because of vested interests. It was discouraging. I worry whether these technologies can get out there in time to make a difference. We’re playing a hell of an experiment with this planet and that worries me.”

Venter believes that his solution will allow answers – on the scale that’s necessary to cope with the demands of an exponentially growing population. It’s radical and somewhat controversial, and I’m already looking forward to finding out more about the practical applications of his findings.

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Reader Comments


February 29, 2008 03:41 PM

An old neighbor was stationed in Vietnam and found there was a bacteria that could consume TREATED ARMY TENT CANVAS--this is really a tough substrate--I wonder what the bi-products are?

Mark F

March 1, 2008 03:18 AM

The Welchway (Mar. 10, 2008) refers to Nov. 4 as being nine months away. My Hewlett Packard calculator tells me the time frame is actually less than eight months. Suzy should have caught this when she edited the column for Jack.


March 1, 2008 01:02 PM

Venter is pure evil. God forgive him.

1990 prophecy

"In four years there will arise a new evil the likes of which mankind has never before encountered. It will arrive almost imperceptibly, with few people noticing the depth of its evil, for it will appear to have beneficial and convenient aspects. It is an evil comparable to abortion -- that is to say, that even if evils as great and widespread as abortion were to be eliminated, this is enough of an evil that it would present mankind with an enormous challenge. This evil is being allowed as a test because of the prayers inspired by Mary to put off chastisements. How mankind responds to this new evil will determine the extent, length, and severity of the first chastisements. These chastisements will differ according to regions, and like the great evil, will not always or usually be immediately noticeable for what they are. In the period also will be a warning that involves not fire from the sky but fear of fire from the sky, and strange loud rumblings. This, according to mankind's response, will then be followed by another chastisement, or the inevitable onset of the change of era. Your era is ending. Soon the world will not be the world you know. I am not speaking of a barren world, or one depopulated, but of the end of your technological era. Many inventions of mankind will be broken down and there will be more of a peasant attitude and way of life everywhere. After this breakdown of false society will come persecution of Christians and also a new world order. The anti-christ will be on earth trying to affect the new world order. Hardly anyone will notice the extent of his influence until afterwards. He will not be of tremendous visibility until he is accomplished. That is to say, he will not rule, control, and be at all obvious to the world at the peak of his influence. He will not be unlike a figure such as Marx, except his ideas will be more immediate.

"I will come not as a man of flesh, but like My mother, who already nurses Me and holds Me in her arms, as a light and power. I will manifest Myself in a series of supernatural events similar to the apparitions but much more powerful. In other words, My second coming will be different than My first, and like My first, it will be spectacular to many but also unknown initially to many, or disbelieved. Yet truly I tell you, the arrogance of the world will have been broken, and so many more than normal will believe.

"I will come in towering light.

"My mother held me in her arms at Medjugorje, as an infant.

"I will come as she has come, in light.

"Know this about the world: I would not appear on television, nor ride a car, nor travel in an airplane.

"Would I come in such a manner?

"Would I live in such a world?

"You think of the changes in very simple ways, without realizing the fundamental mistakes of mankind.

"The very artifice of your societies is false and against the accordance of God's Will.

"This artifice shall not last.

"Your very conceptions of happiness and comforts are a great evil and falsity.

"They will not stand.

"My greatest nemesis is science, even more so than the media. The science that alters life, the science which creates a counterfeit heaven, the science that toils with the womb and genes, the science that has filled the air with the power of the enemy, the science which creates chemical witchcraft and fouls the earth, the science which seeks to create life but cannot in actuality even sustain it, the science which has denied God.

"This will fall, and all of its creations with it.

"The seat of Satan in America is north of San Francisco.

"New York City is under an evil cloud and will be for 12 years. Do not go there. The pride there will be broken.

"As for the anti-christ, remember Europe, and especially Central Europe.

"Yet know too that God's Hand will be evident in South America.

"The world will not end but change."


March 3, 2008 03:09 PM

The canvas consuming microbe in Vietnam was a fungus. The DOE has already sequenced it in order to discover which cellulases were at work.


March 9, 2008 05:09 AM

@ron: don't pollute public forums with mindless religious diatribes


January 13, 2010 03:05 PM

God bless Ron as he only relayed a message of truth. It would only be unwelcome by one polluting public forums with soulless scientific diatribes.

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What comes next? The BusinessWeek Innovation and Design team of Michael Arndt and Helen Walters chronicle new tools for creativity and collaboration, innovation case studies in both the corporate and social sectors, and the new ideas that have the power to change the way things have always been done.

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