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.
What comes next? The Bloomberg Businessweek Innovation and Design blog chronicles 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.