Sunday, April 02, 2006

Bacterial fuel of life

Perhaps only a scientific illiterate like me would be surprised at this, but one of the many possible methods of creating a replacement for fossil fuels could be the use of bacteria. Bacteria especially created for the purpose of creating fule. This, I learn from an interview in Prospect with Craig Venter, is his next big project. His last, you may recall, was the privately-funded human genome project.

Evidently DuPont are already making a polymer for plastics from a bacteria they have spent 5 years adapting. Venter, who is not amenable to the monastic pace of normal development, is not going to spend his time tinkering with complicated real bacteria. He's going to make his own.

I think that if we can build a cell from scratch with only the very minimum of processes it needs to survive, we won't need to go through this long process of modifying an existing bacterium to shut down all the pathways you don't want. Instead, you can add to this "minimal cell" the pathway you need in order to make a specific product. I have been trying to understand the minimum a cell needs to survive for the past ten years, as part of a basic research project; the fact that it has commercial and social applications is wonderful...we've been finding ways to build genomes artificially. The first time a team built a simple virus genome from scratch, it took three years. Using new techniques we did it in two weeks. The genome of the simplest bacterium is around 60 times bigger so it is much more difficult, but we are moving towards creating the first very simple living organism.
The almost dormant catholic in me has always nursed deep misgivings about a lot of green politics, the strong whiff of pantheism about it travelling via myriad neural pathways to primeval memories of the Earth-Mother and her maws voracious for human blood. This project, however, is quite a different kettle of microscopic crawlies. A beautiful idea, but look how the line between life and non-life grows blurrier by the minute.

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