Microbes will be the (human) food- and fuel-makers of the future, if J. Craig Venter has his way. The man responsible for one of the original sequences of the human genome as well as the team that brought you the first living cell running on human-made DNA now hopes to harness algae to make everything humanity needs. All it takes is a little genomic engineering.
"Nothing new has to be invented. We just have to combine [genes] in a way that nature has not done before. We're speeding up evolution by billions of years," Venter told an energy conference on October 18 at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C. "It's hard to imagine a part of humanity not substantially impacted." _SciAm
Craig Venter wants to tweak algae and other microbes, so that humans can get most of their food, fuel, chemicals, plastics, medicines, and other high value items from microbial production. It is a matter of understanding the language of biology to a depth never before mastered. It is a difficult goal. But the payoff is almost inconceivably large.
Given algae's multibillion-year track record with photosynthesis and genetic experimentation Agradis's purpose is to turn that genetic cornucopia into improvements in agricultural crops, whether corn or canola—as well as use algae as a model for testing various new genetic combinations. A similar partnership between Monsanto and algae company Sapphire Energy will "use our algae platform that we developed to mine for genes that can transfer into their core agricultural products," explained Tim Zenk, Sapphire's vice president for corporate affairs in a prior interview with Scientific American. "When you do genetic screening in algae, you get hundreds of millions of traits in the screen and that accelerates the chances of finding something that can be transferred."
If that's not enough, Venter sees a role for synthetic biology in food beyond crops and livestock—specifically the growing hunger for meat around the world. "It takes 10 kilograms of grain to produce one kilogram of beef, 15 liters of water to get one kilogram of beef, and those cows produce a lot of methane," another potent greenhouse gas, Venter observed. "Why not get rid of the cows?" The replacement: meat grown in a test tube from microbes thanks to synthetic biology.
...look at the potential output from algae, and it's one to two orders of magnitude better than the best agricultural system. If we were trying to make liquid transportation fuels to replace all transportation fuels in the U.S. and you try and do that from corn it would take a facility three times the size of the continental U.S. If you try to do it from algae, it's a facility roughly the size of the state of Maryland. One is doable and the other's just absurd, but we don't have an algae lobby.
...We need three major ingredients: CO2, sunlight and seawater, aside from having the facility and refinery to convert all those things. We're looking at sites around the world that have the major ingredients. It helps if it's near a major refinery because that limits shipping distances. Moving billions of gallons of hydrocarbons around is expensive. But refineries are also a good source of concentrated CO2.
It's the integration of the entire process. [Synthetic Genomics] is not trying to become a fuel company. You won't see SGI gas stations out there, we're leaving that to ExxonMobil. We will help them shift the source of hydrocarbons to material recycled from CO2. _SciAm
Venter takes the "food vs. fuels" debate and turns it on its head: Why not make both, using the same type of platform?
A scientist at the University of Maastricht is not waiting for Venter's breakthroughs before beginning to grow meat in the lab. Mark Post is a vascular biologist at the university, who is in the process of growing multiple thin slices of meat which he plans to glue together with fatty substance. Such an approach would allow for a wide variety of programmed nutritional content -- perhaps food that is personalised to one's needs.
'Cultured meat' begins with stem cells harvested from slaughterhouse leftovers.
Dr Post nurtures the cells with a liquid feed containing sugars, protein building-blocks, fats, minerals and other nutrients.
So far he has produced strips of meat 2.5cm long. Like muscle, these need to be exercised to grow - by stretching them repeatedly between Velcro tabs.
"The first one will be a proof of concept, just to show it's possible," he said.
Dr Post argues that an alternative to livestock farming is needed to satisfy the world's growing hunger for meat.
Animals need to be fed 100g of vegetable protein to make 15g of muscle.
"Current livestock meat production is just not sustainable. Not from an ecological point of view, and neither from a volume point of view.
"Right now we are using more than 50% of all our agricultural land for livestock." _Sky.news
Most journalists, energy analysts, policy makers, and academics have no concept of the biological potential of the planet Earth. Having fed their intuitions and imaginations on a steady diet of scarcity, they are at a loss in the larger world of actual possibilities.
But don't let the shortcomings of your overlords and masters in the media, government, and academia keep you from understanding the world as it is and as it could be. There is a whole new level of thought and existence coming. We simply need to survive until it gets here.
In the meantime: Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.
Adapted from an Al Fin blog article.