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Building Better Bacteria

December 1, 2002

A cheap, renewable, environmentally friendly energy source is the goal not just of many engineers, but also of some biotechnologists. J. Craig Venter, founder of Celera Genomics, which raced against the Human Genome Project to sequence the entire human complement of DNA, has set up the Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives, a nonprofit laboratory that is hunting for ways microbes can provide energy and clean the environment.

Researchers have been experimenting with bacteria that can produce fuels such as hydrogen and methane, as well as those that can remove carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas, from the air. But it’s difficult or impossible to grow many of the most promising organisms in a lab. So Venter plans to use the latest genetic-engineering tools to amplify these bacteria’s gas-producing and air-cleaning traits and transfer them to other microbes that are easier to work with, or eventually to build entirely new organisms.

The institute’s first efforts, though, will focus on engineering existing bacteria to produce large amounts of hydrogen for fuel cells or to collect atmospheric carbon dioxide on an industrial scale. Venter says he expects results within one to five years.

Venter’s unusual tactics may be just what’s needed to coax microbes to work at such a scale, says Gregory Stephanopoulos, an MIT chemical engineer who is an expert on genetically engineered microbes. “They’ll be taking an unconventional approach to these problems. I am encouraged by that,” he says. For example, Venter says that the method he used to sequence human DNA could uncover useful genes from organisms that can’t be grown in the lab. If Venter can extend his record of success, power plants may one day run on vats of microbes instead of fossil-fuel furnaces.

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