The Science of Sustainability

Energy independence through genetics?

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Like an ever growing number of Bay Area folks, I drive a Prius. The other day I was thinking why this is. Certainly part of it is doing my bit to at least slow down global warming.

But another big reason is to do my part to wean the U.S. off foreign oil. I’m convinced a big reason we’re in Iraq is that we need the Mideast’s oil. So I’m doing my bit there too.

But as a biologist, could I be doing more? I studied how genes work and tried to come up with medicines that could control genes gone wrong. Is there some way to use this sort of genetics to decrease our dependence on foreign oil? Maybe.

Just look at Craig Venter (or Darth Venter as he’s been called). You may remember him as the upstart in the human genome project who forced it all to be completed sooner than predicted.

Well, now he’s a gene prospector. He spends a lot of his time trolling the oceans for new microbial genes.

We haven’t found these genes before because we didn’t know what was out there. In the past, we were pretty much restricted to what we could grow in a lab. Now we use PCR to get new genes. (PCR is a technique that allows scientists to make a lot of DNA from very little.)

Very cool but what does this have to do with energy independence? Venter is trying to find genes to create a new organism that can turn agricultural waste into ethanol for fuel on an industrial scale.

That’s right, I said create an organism. He’s working on creating a microbe with the smallest number of genes needed to be alive.

If he makes the minimal microbe, then folks could create microbes with all sorts of properties. You call his company and tell them you want a microbe that can do X, Y, and Z. His folks put the right genes in and send it right to your company or lab. A brave new world!

Once he has his minimal microbe, he would then add the new ethanol genes he found. Then he’d put the microbe into a big vat of agricultural waste and voila, unlimited ethanol for our cars.

Of course this will only slow down global warming (like me driving a Prius multiplied by hundreds of millions). But Venter is looking for different genes to do even more.

What if he finds a gene that converts water to hydrogen gas? (Or a series of genes.) Then we get hydrogen for fuel cells without generating carbon dioxide to make the hydrogen.

Better living through chemistry? How about better living through life creation?
Dr. Barry Starr is a Geneticist-in-Residence at The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, CA.

Learn more about alternative energy sources and what you can do at The Tech’s new exhibit, Green By Design.

Learn more about genetics at The Tech’s online exhibition, Understanding Genetics.

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Category: Biology, Chemistry, Energy, Health, Sustainable Health

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Dr. Barry Starr

About the Author ()

Dr. Barry Starr is a Geneticist-in-Residence at The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, CA and runs their Stanford at The Tech program. The program is part of an ongoing collaboration between the Stanford Department of Genetics and The Tech Museum of Innovation. Together these two partners created the Genetics: Technology with a Twist exhibition. Read his previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.