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Future is designer fuels: Craig Venter


New Delhi : Imagine a world where synthetically made microorganisms will suck up excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and turn it into fuel. It’s not the imagination of a science fiction writer, but the research area of maverick American biologist and entrepreneur J. Craig Venter.

Speaking on the concluding day of the India Today Conclave Saturday, Venter outlined a world where artificially created organisms could provide solutions to some of the most pressing ecological dilemmas.

“We can use the potential of the new field of synthetic genomes to tap energy from sunlight, create biomass, recycle carbon dioxide, which will bring down its level,” he said.

Venter has been in the eye of controversy ever since he had run a parallel, commercial version of the Human Genome Project during the 1990s. He took the joint honour for mapping the human genome along with Larry Collins of the US’s National Institute of Health in 2000. Last year in September, he became the first human to have his entire DNA sequence mapped.

In 2005, he announced the setting up of a new company, Synthetic Genomics, which as its name implies fabricates modified microorganisms to produce alternative fuels.

“The biggest problem that I see today is what we are doing to the environment,” he said.

Venter explained that he was involved in a programme with British Petroleum to convert coal into natural gas using natural organisms.

“Bacteria lives on the surface of the coal, eats it and digests natural gas… If we could have even a one percent change, it will be a huge impact on the natural gas industry,” he said, adding that it will also put a dent on the ecologically harmful method of using coal as a fuel by burning it and releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

“In the long term, the area for potential is of designer fuels,” he said.

He said he was working on “fourth generation fuels” which will have carbon dioxide as the “feedstock”. “Imagine, instead of burying carbon dioxide in the ground, we have pipelines of carbon dioxide running around, which are then converted into natural gas,” he said.

Besides future fuels, Venter also talked about his plans to capture human phenotypes, that is, observed qualities that are not inherited, like behaviour and development.

“Think of all your physical, mental, historical or medical information in one place. Then we can compare it with genotype to answer the eternal question – what’s nature and what’s nurture,” he said.

Speaking on his controversial image, Venter said it was a result of being on the “leading edge of technology”.