Dimbleby Lecture 2007
- Dear All
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A DNA-Driven World
Dr J Craig Venter gave the annual Richard Dimbleby Lecture on BBC One last night (Tuesday 4 December 2007).
The text of the lecture follows:
Thank you for the kind introduction. It is a great honour to be presenting the 2007 Dimbleby Lecture as only the third American, and one of just a handful of scientists out of the 32 Dimbleby Lectures.
I have called this lecture A DNA-Driven World, because I believe that the future of our society relies at least in part on our understanding of biology and the molecules of life - DNA. Every era is defined by its technologies. The last century could be termed the nuclear age, and I propose that the century ahead will be fundamentally shaped by advances in biology and my field of genomics, which is the study of the complete genetic make-up of a species.
Our planet is facing almost insurmountable problems, problems that governments on their own clearly can't fix. In order to survive, we need a scientifically literate society willing and able to embrace change - because our ability to provide life's essentials of food, water, shelter and energy for an expanding human population will require major advances in science and technology.
In this lecture I will argue that the future of life depends not only in our ability to understand and use DNA, but also, perhaps in creating new synthetic life forms, that is, life which is forged not by Darwinian evolution but created by human intelligence.
To some this may be troubling, but part of the problem we face with scientific advancement, is the fear of the unknown - fear that often leads to rejection.
Science is a topic which can cause people to turn off their brains. I contend that science has failed to excite more people for at least two reasons: it is frequently taught poorly, often as rote memorisation of complex facts and data, and it is antithetical to our visceral-driven way we live and interact with our world.
As a young student I was very turned off by the forced memorisation of seemingly trivial facts which were, I felt, at the expense of true understanding. Instead I was much more interested in discovering and living in my world - I caught frogs and snakes, built boats and explored my surroundings.
In the past, science and the world used to seem easier to understand when discovery was based directly on our human senses. For example, when Darwin visited the Galapagos on his epic voyage he was able to see with his own eyes the flightless cormorants, the giant tortoises and the swimming and diving iguanas. From this sensory experience, he was able then to relate what he saw in the Galapagos to his other observations and develop a new context for understanding life by proposing the theory of evolution.
When Galileo developed the telescope, the wonders of the skies were truly illuminated for humans by expanding the capabilities of our visual system. Scientists have continued to extend our vision to glimpse distance galaxies that are not even faint stars in the sky to our naked eyes. Microscopes have helped us see further into the inner world of biology, first to cells then to molecules, all advances taking us well beyond our own physiological capabilities.
Our ability to see, hear, smell, taste, and feel the world around us are wonderful evolutionary developments upon which we base our daily lives. We can recognize and respond to the minor facial differences in how the 6.5 billion of us on Earth appear, but also to minute changes in facial expression indicating astonishment, pleasure, fear, love, and hate. We devote a substantial amount of modern human existence and our economy, appealing to our love of visual and audio stimulation.
In addition to our obvious senses, we have other remarkable capabilities that most of us are not aware of, but affect our lives from minute to minute. For example, while we cannot see, taste or feel carbon dioxide, we are extraordinarily sensitive to minute changes of CO2 concentrations in our bodies. It is carbon dioxide not oxygen that controls our breathing.
But as science has advanced, it has gone far beyond the immediately sensed world. It is now a world filled with dark matter in space, x-rays, gamma-rays, ultra violet light, DNA, genes, chromosomes, and bacteria that live in and around us in staggering numbers. We can't detect these directly, yet we feel the consequences of all of them. We are also now bombarded by information on wars, acts of terror, climate change and global warming, devastating storms, fuel shortages, emerging infections, flu pandemics, HIV, stem cells, animal cloning, genetically modified plants, and now the possibility of synthetic life forms, all while trying to cope with complexities of our daily lives. It is no great surprise then that there is a global resurgence of fundamentalism, a desire to get back to what appeared to be a simpler time, and a time when our primary senses and simple rules appeared to determine our life outcomes.
But I believe such a view is both simplistic and dangerous because it avoids the issues we need to face.
Our planet is in crisis, and we need to mobilise all of our intellectual forces to save it. One solution could lie in building a scientifically literate society in order to survive.
While we share most of our senses with the rest of the animal world, we have a most unique and exciting evolutionary development - our brain. It provides us the ability to think, to reason, to predict and ponder the future. It enables us to ask questions and gives us the extraordinary capability to take over our own evolution by building complex tools that extend human capabilities millions of times further than would happen even with another billion years of evolution.
To begin the process of change we need to start with our children by teaching them in place of memorisation, to explore, challenge, and problem solve in an attempt to understand the world around them, and most especially the world they cannot "see" or feel directly. Perhaps, we can also start by changing the way we teach science in our schools.
Many studies continue to relay sobering facts about the state of our science and math education in both the United States and the United Kingdom. A recent study compared math and science scores of 12 to 13-year-olds from each US state to their counterparts in both the developed and developing world. While it conveyed some good information, namely that the US and UK are doing better than in previous years, it still showed that compared to countries such as Singapore, Taiwan, Japan and China even the best US states and England still lag behind. The good news for England however, is that you've outperformed the US in science scores. This might be due in part to the fact that half of all US citizens believe that humans coexisted with dinosaurs, or the 25% who don't know the Earth revolves around the sun, and the 58% who cannot calculate a 10% tip on a restaurant bill. With this poor state of basic knowledge, how can we hope to survive the ever growing complexities of modern life?
This lack of knowledge is only part of the issue. In the US only 16% of all post-secondary education degrees are in math, science, or engineering, compared to 52% for China. And unfortunately those numbers are not all that different in the UK. If science and engineering are not national and global priorities how can we expect to cope with the complexities ahead and/or compete with nations that do value science?
So what can we do to change this situation? One solution could be new teaching methods aimed at exciting students about discovery.
I did not get excited about science until after I was drafted into the military during the Vietnam War and ended up in the medical corps. It was only there in the chaos of war that I learned firsthand that knowledge had real life and death consequences. While I went on to pursue a career in science after serving in Vietnam, I wish that my interest in science had been stimulated much sooner. We now know that to motivate students, particularly girls, for careers in science we need to capture their attention early.
At the Venter Institute we have developed a mobile genomics laboratory to bring the science of genomics to 12 and 13-year-olds to expose these students to scientific problem solving and the excitement of science. We started out with the simple idea of outfitting a large bus as a research laboratory, and then, working with schools, we developed learning modules taught by very enthusiastic and hands-on teachers. The results have been overwhelming. While many were at first skeptical of the program, because it was new and different from the standard lesson plans, we now have a waiting list for participants and we have constant calls and emails from parents and teachers who want the bus to come to their schools.
I think this program succeeds, because in each lesson plan we convey the wonderment of discovery and problem solving. For example, one lesson involves solving a crime scene investigation using DNA analysis much like is done in a popular TV program CSI. Had I been exposed to science in this real world manner I might have had a much better educational experience and at an earlier stage forged a stronger interest in science.
There are also science intensive schools that are trying alternative teaching methods. One such school in Virginia is teaching students to be more like scientists - to use inquiry-based learning and encouraging them to do experiments they designed themselves rather than age-old text book experiments and lessons heavy on memorisation. These students are learning what I learned on my own while doing research as an advanced university student: that there is no greater intellectual joy than asking seemingly simple questions about life, then designing an experiment to find answers and uncovering a never before known discovery. We need generations of children who are grounded in reality and who learn evidenced-based decision making as a life-long philosophy. Teaching science as evidence-based decision making could have a profound impact on the pace of future discoveries and inventions. Simply asking what is the evidence behind any claim is a marked contrast to approaching life only upon a faith-based system.
Fostering such scientific literacy is crucial, because we and our planet are facing problems that, I believe, can only be solved by scientific advancement.
There are those who like to believe that the future of life on Earth will continue as it has in the past, but unfortunately for humanity, the natural world around us does not care what we believe. But believing that we can do something to change our situation using our knowledge can very much affect the environment in which we live.
Perhaps an even greater problem than scientific literacy, is that almost every aspect of our modern society is geared toward only dealing with problems after they have occurred, rather than focusing on prevention. We have a visceral response to tragedies, to wars, floods, disease, and famine because we can see the problem and see the need to correct it. A much more difficult approach for societies is to use our intellectual capacity to understand the possibility of preventing wars by not invading countries but using diplomacy, or repairing infrastructure before bridges and dams fail, or preventing diseases by changing our diet.
Medicine and health care are areas that desperately need to move toward a preventive philosophy. We need to understand that it is far more cost effective, with better life outcomes to prevent diseases rather than treat them after they occur.
The cost of health care is one of the fastest growing expenses. In 2005 total US health expenditures rose 6.9% - twice the rate of inflation. Total spending was a staggering $2trillion. US health care spending is expected to increase at similar levels for the next decade reaching $4trillion in 2015. That's 20% of GDP. But all this money does not seem to guarantee the highest quality health care. The World Health Organisation in 2000 ranked the US health care system as 1st by expenditure but only 72nd on health. In contrast the UK was 26th by total expenditures and 24th on health.
If we take a look at the cost burden of just one disease, diabetes, the figures are astounding. Diabetes is a disease that when poorly managed leads to serious complications such as heart disease, stroke, blindness, kidney failure, and nerve disease.
According to the US Centers for Disease Control, the total cost of diabetes to US society is $132billion each year. The average annual health care costs for a person with diabetes, is over five times that of someone without the disease. In the UK it is estimated that 9% of the annual NHS budget or over £5.2billion goes to diabetes care. Many studies have shown that simple preventive measures such as a healthier diet and moderate exercise such as walking can lead to dramatic reductions in the rate of disease onset and can eliminate or greatly reduce the incidence of complications.
Preventative medicine is the only way forward that I see for lowering the cost of health care other than the unacceptable approach of denying access. One of the keys to preventative medicine will be an understanding of our genetic risk for future diseases along with a greater understanding of the corresponding environmental influences of disease.
Just three months ago in September, we published the first complete human genome sequence and now it is available to all on the internet. The human genome comprises all the genetic information that we inherit from both of our parents in the form of 46 chromosomes, 23 from each parent. Chromosomes are in turn long stretches of DNA which is composed of four different chemical letters known simply as A, T, C and G. Our genome has six billion of these genetic letters. The genome we published contained both sets of chromosomes from each of my parents. I say my parents because it was my own genome that was sequenced and published.
I chose to decode my DNA because in the complex debate concerning deterministic views of genetic outcomes and the fears that many have voiced about revealing all their genetic secrets. I as a leader in this field, wanted to show that we don't have to fear our genetic information. Our genetic code is not deterministic and will provide us very few yes-no answers. It will, however, provide probabilities concerning outcomes that we will eventually be able to influence. It seemed far better to me to use my own genome, rather than trying to convince anyone else that it was ok for them.
One of the more exciting findings from our study is that any two humans differ from each other by about 1-2%, not the 0.1% that we thought was the case when we sequenced the first draft of the human genome earlier in the decade. This data is much more comforting as it is clear to me that we are all much more individualistic than previously thought. One of the key questions that I frequently get asked is what have I learned from my genome and is there information that I can do something about?
Let me give you a few examples to illustrate some of what I have found. For example, like many people, I reach for my inhaler in smoggy conditions. Genetics contributes to this susceptibility and researchers have focused on a certain family of enzymes that help detoxify everything from carcinogens to pharmaceuticals. There is a gene that is associated with the ability to degrade environmental toxins, however nearly half of the Caucasian population lacks that gene. In my own genome I found only one copy that I received from one parent and none from the other, so perhaps that is why I am more susceptible to environmental toxins.
As a depressing bonus, given its detoxifying role, this genetic deficiency may make me more susceptible to particular chemical carcinogens, and there is an association with lung and colorectal cancers.
From my genome I also became aware of genes that confirmed my increased risk for heart disease. The most common cause of heart disease is atherosclerosis, in which calcium, along with fats and cholesterol, collects in the blood vessels to form plaques, which can trigger a heart attack or stroke. One gene called APO E is responsible for regulating levels of certain fats in the bloodstream. Variants here have been linked with heart disease and also to Alzheimer's disease. Both of these could be in the cards for me. Fortunately, by reading my own genome, I have a chance to overcome my genetics by making changes in my diet and exercise. I am also taking a statin, a fat-lowering drug, as part of my preventative medicine paradigm. Statins also shows some hints of prevention of Alzheimer's disease.
Hundreds more genes are linked with coronary disease, from heart attacks to high blood pressure and narrowing of blood vessels. My genome carries lower risk versions of some genes and higher risks versions of others, but it will take time for us to understand the complicated way they interact with each other and how to predict a true risk profile.
However, one genetic change that probably lowers my risk for a heart attack is associated with my body's ability to rapidly metabolise caffeine. I drink many cups of coffee per day but fortunately, I carry the rapid metabolising version of the gene. Some genes only become harmful in combination with a certain lifestyle - drinking coffee, tea or other drinks with caffeine. Some individuals carry a mutation that slows down caffeine metabolism and, as a result, increases an individuals' risk of having a heart attack on drinking tea or coffee. A study of around 4,000 people showed that the risk of heart attack increased 64% with four or more cups of coffee per day, compared with patients who drank less than one cup per day. However, the corresponding risk was less than 1% for individuals, who like me, had two copies of a rapid metabolising version of the gene. These genetic differences may explain why many studies looking at the association between caffeine consumption and heart attack risk have been inconclusive, because we are not genetically identical and do not all respond in the same way.
These are just a handful of illustrations that hint at the type of information that will be possible for all of us in the near future.
At my institute we are now scaling up to sequence the genomes from 10,000 people. This will provide a massive and powerful database, particularly when linked with clinical records and life outcomes. At that stage, we will have a much clearer view of the genetic basis of humanity.
I feel that new laws are needed to prevent an individual's genetic code from being used as a basis of discrimination in education, employment or access to health care. The genetic code will give us probabilities about disease risk and the ability to understand environmental factors linked to genetics. Will governments, businesses and insurance companies pay the smaller amount in advance to prevent disease? Or will we be locked into the current system of treating only what we can see?
Being an optimist I believe that we can ultimately solve the health care issue. But the fundamental problem facing our planet - that of climate change - is one that is far more grave. In fact, unless we tackle this head on, health care could be the least of our worries.
There has been much debate about climate change perhaps because we cannot see carbon dioxide when we exhale, or when we burn oil and coal to heat our homes, or use petrol to power our cars or fly planes. We do, however, have scientific instruments that can accurately measure what we humans produce and the increasing amount of carbon that we are adding to our environment.
The data is irrefutable - carbon dioxide concentrations have been steadily increasing in our atmosphere as a result of human activity since the earliest measurements began. We know that on the order of 4.1 billion tons of carbon are being added to and staying in our atmosphere each year. We know that burning fossil fuels and deforestation are the principal contributors to the increasing carbon dioxide concentrations in our atmosphere. We know that increasing CO2 concentrations has the same effect as the glass walls and roof of a greenhouse. It lets the energy from the sun easily penetrate but limits its escape, hence the term greenhouse gas.
Observational and modeling studies have confirmed the association of increasing CO2 concentrations with the change in average global temperatures over the last 120 years. Between 1906 and 2005 the average global temperature has increased 0.74 degrees C. This may not seem like very much, but it can have profound effects on the strength of storms and the survival of species including coral reefs.
Eleven of the last 12 years rank among the warmest years since 1850. While no one knows for certain the consequences of this continuing unchecked warming, some have argued it could result in catastrophic changes, such as the disruption of the Gulf Steam which keeps the UK out of the ice age or even the possibility of the Greenland ice sheet sliding into the Atlantic Ocean. Whether or not these devastating changes occur, we are conducting a dangerous experiment with our planet. One we need to stop.
The developed world including the United States, England and Europe contribute disproportionately to the environmental carbon, but the developing world is rapidly catching up. As the world population increases from 6.5 billion people to 9 billion over the next 45 years and countries like India and China continue to industrialise, some estimates indicate that we will be adding over 20 billion tons of carbon a year to the atmosphere. Continued greenhouse gas emissions at or above current rates would cause further warming and induce many changes to the global climate that could be more extreme than those observed to date. This means we can expect more climate change, more ice cap melts, rising sea levels, warmer oceans and therefore greater storms, as well as more droughts and floods, all which compromise food and fresh water production.
The increase in population coupled with climate change will tax every aspect of our lives. In a world already struggling to keep up with demand, will we be able to provide the basics of food, clean water, shelter and fuel to these new citizens of Earth? And will governments be able to cope with new emerging infections, storms, wildfires, and global conflicts?
So is there any way of avoiding these apocalyptic visions of the future coming true? Many have argued that we simply need to conserve, to alter and regress our standard of living and block the industrialisation of developing countries. In my view this is extremely naive thinking. Furthermore, even the most optimistic models on climate change show a dramatically altered planet Earth going forward even if we embrace all alternative options such as wind and solar energy, and electric cars. Our entire world economy and the ability of modern society to provide life's basics, depend on the very industrialisation that contributes to our possible demise.
Yet, sadly, very little thinking, planning or projections about how to cope with the carbon problem and climate change have taken into account the capabilities of modern science to produce what we have long needed to help solve these global threats.
It is clear to me that we need more approaches and creative solutions. We need new disruptive ideas and technologies to solve these critical global issues. This is where, I believe, biology and genomics, come in.
Wikipedia defines a disruptive technology or disruptive innovation as "a technological innovation, product, or service that eventually overturns the existing dominant technology or status quo product in the market." Well known examples of disruptive innovations include: telephones replacing telegraphs, cell phones replacing land lines, automobiles replacing horses and carriages and digital photography over film. We are clearly in need of a multitude of disruptive inventions to change our approach to energy and the challenges ahead of us.
Creating new technology is something my team and I have some familiarity with. When we joined the race to sequence the human genome in 1998 we did so with a completely new and relatively untried technique. I was called many things - audacious, arrogant, rebellious, and maverick - but the most flattering would have been disruptive. Few people thought our method would work but we proved them wrong. And within two years the first draft of the human genome was laid out for all to see.
Since then the field has advanced beyond all expectation. Utilising biology we have the ability to address every area of our lives - from medical treatment, to renewable sources of fuels. Plastics, carpets, clothing, medicines, and motor oil - all of these things can be created by biological organisms, and in an environmentally sustainable manner.
The pedantic argument concerning future inventions is how can we count on new technologies that don't yet exist? Some can look at the past and see no change for the future, while others will extrapolate forward in a liner manner. However, there are some fields where predicting and counting on exponential change has become reasonable and reliable. For example, Gordon Moore, a founder of the computer chip giant Intel, predicted that the density of transistors on integrated circuits would double every 2 years, a prediction that became referred to as Moore's Law. This rough rule of exponential change has now been applied to the electronics industry as a whole and specifically to computer memory and digital cameras. There is another version, called Butter's Law of Photonics. This law predicts that data transmission over optical fibers will double every nine months, and as a result, the cost of transmitting data decreases by half every nine months. We see the results of these predictions in ever faster, smaller and cheaper computers and faster data transmission which is probably a good thing as digital cameras with small memory cards exceed the capacity of computers on the market just barely a decade ago.
This kind of exponential growth is what has happened with our human population. It required close to 100,000 years for the human population to reach 1 billion people on Earth in 1804. In 1960 the world population passed 3 billion and now we are likely to go from 6.5 billion to 9 billion over the next 45 years. I was born in 1946 when there were only about 2.4 billion of us on the planet, today there are almost three people for each one of us in 1946 and there will soon be four.
If such predictions of exponential change have come true for the electronics industry, and the population, then isn't it possible the same could hold true for changing education, medicine, replacing the petrochemical industry, and saving the environment?
Similar exponential growth is seen in genomics - a term that did not even exist prior to the Eighties. While the initial discoveries came slowly, they were followed by an ever increasing pace of change. For example, in 1955 Fred Sanger at Cambridge determined the sequence of the protein insulin. It was the first protein to be sequenced in history. Twenty-one years later in 1976 and 1977 the first two viral genomes were decoded. However, it would be 18 more years in 1995 when my team used disruptive techniques to decode the first genome of a living organism, Haemophilus influenzae, a bacterium that causes ear infections and meningitis in children. This genome has 1.8 million letters of genetic code making it 300 times the size of the first viral genomes.
Armed with this new method only 5 years later, we increased the scale of what we did by 100 times by determining the first insect genome, the fruit fly, which had 180 million letters of genetic code. We followed this one year later with the 3 billion base pair haploid human genome which was equivalent to over 600,000 viral genomes and over 1,600 bacterial genomes.
So over a short period of time genome projects, which 10 years ago required several years to complete, now take only days. Within 5 years it will be common place to have your own genome sequenced. Something that just a decade ago required billions of pounds and was considered a monumental achievement. Our ability to read the genetic code is changing even faster than changes predicted by Moore's Law.
Using genomics has also rapidly accelerated the discovery of new species. Earlier this year from my institute's Sorcerer II Expedition, which included a sailing circumnavigation on my 95 foot yacht, Sorcerer II, we applied the tools we developed for decoding the human genome and used them to decode the DNA of the world's oceans. We published a single scientific paper describing over 6 million new genes. This one study more than doubled the number of genes known to the scientific community and the number is likely to double again in the next year.
We are now using similar approaches to identify the microbes that live inside of us. We have identified more microbes in our guts than the 100 trillion human cells we have in our bodies. We have also catalogued the tens of thousands of microbes and viruses that are in the air we breathe.
These modern tools of genomics and DNA sequencing are rapidly revealing to us the incredible world of microbes that we exist within and exist within us.
Young students of science can today make more discoveries in one year than major institutions or countries could make in a decade just a short while ago.
So, what is the value of these discoveries? The answer is many things but one of the most important is a better understanding of life and its evolution on Earth. And what can we do with all this new information that is coming at an exponential pace? We can use these millions of newly discovered organisms and genes to tell us how the environment is changing as a result of human activities.
But above all I believe the best examples of disruptive technologies that could change our future are in the new fields of synthetic biology, synthetic genomics, and metabolic engineering. These fields can change the way we think about life by showing that we can use living systems to increase our chances of survival as a species. Simply put: this area of research will enable us to create new fuels to replace oil and coal.
Imagine scientists in the near future sitting at their computers and designing the chromosome of a new organism, an organism that perhaps could produce fuels biologically, fuels like octane, diesel fuel, jet fuel even hydrogen all from sugar or even sunlight with the carbon coming from carbon dioxide.
Imagine that after designing the new chromosome, the computer directed a robot to chemically make the DNA strand encoding all that information, and that once constructed, the new chromosome would be inserted into a bacterial cell where it becomes activated causing the cell to turn into the species that the scientist designed. And now imagine that new species in a bio-reactor making millions of copies of itself and each copy is producing a new fuel from only renewable sources. Sounds like science fiction right? Not to me, because I believe this is the future.
For the past 15 years at ever faster rates we have been digitising biology. By that I mean going from the analog world of biology through DNA sequencing into the digital world of the computer. I also refer to this as reading the genetic code. The human genome is perhaps the best example of digitising biology. Our computer databases are growing faster per day then during the first 10 years of DNA sequencing. The databases have been filling even faster with the results of our global ocean sequencing project. As a result we have now over 10 million genes in the public databases, the majority of which have been contributed by my teams.
We and others have been working for the past several years on the ability to go from reading the genetic code to learning how to write it. It is now possible to design in the computer and then chemically make in the laboratory, very large DNA molecules. A few months ago we published a scientific study in the journal Science where we described the ability to take a chromosome from one bacterium and place it into a second bacterial cell. The result was astonishing - the new DNA that we added changed the species completely from the original one into the species defined by the added DNA. You could describe this as the ultimate in identity theft.
Again, maybe this sounds like science fiction, but I think it is actually a key mechanism of evolution, that could be largely responsible for the wide range of diversity that we see. Instead of evolution happening only due to random mutations that survived selective pressure, we can see how by adding chromosomes to or exchanged between species, that thousands of changes could happen in an instant.
Now they can happen not just by random chance but by deliberate human design and selection. Human thought and design and specific selection is now replacing Darwinian evolution.
One of the most significant and unique features of our research in synthetic genomics that often gets overlooked by the news media, is the long history, starting from the beginning of this work in 1995 and continuing today, of ethical review. As with the past 30 years of molecular biology, the organisms being designed cannot survive outside of the laboratory and are subject to strict containment. While we don't want students doing this work in their basements, this new field is stimulating an exciting new interest in biological studies.
Right now extensively modified bacteria are being used to make food additives and industrial chemicals. DuPont has a plant in the US state of Tennessee with four very large silos where they are using metabolically engineered bacteria to convert sugar into a new polymer, propanediol which is the key component in their stain resistant carpets and clothing. Several teams, including my own, are modifying bacteria to make the next generation biofuels. For example, my team has a new fuel chemical made from sugars as a starting material that has the potential to be one of the first green jet fuels.
But we don't always have to modify bacteria or design new ones. What has occurred on Earth from Darwinian evolution is pretty amazing in that the unique metabolism of these microbial powerhouses can often provide exactly what we need. For instance, we have a team at my institute headed by Ken Nealson that has developed microbial fuel cells using naturally occurring bacteria. These organisms can process human and animal waste to produce electricity and or clean water.
At my company Synthetic Genomics, we have a major program underway in collaboration with BP to see if we can use naturally occurring microbes to metabolise coal into methane which can then be harvested as natural gas. While not a renewable source of carbon, it could provide as much as a 10 fold improvement over mining and burning coal. We also have organisms that can convert CO2 into methane thereby providing a renewable source of fuel.
The biggest question in my mind is the one of scale. Last year we consumed more than 83 million barrels of oil per day or 30 billion barrels during the year. In addition we used over 3 billion tons of coal. These are mind boggling numbers and the only way that I can see replacing oil and coal is through a widely distributed system. If there were one million bio-refineries around the globe each one would still need to produce 17,000 liters per day. For the UK my vision would entail thousands of bio-refineries distributed around the country near where the fuel would be consumed and where the starting raw material such as cellulose would be available. On a global scale there will be millions of new fuel producers perhaps favoring the agricultural rich developing world. This could be the ultimate disruptive model by changing the entire infrastructure for energy production and consumption and helping us toward a carbon neutral world.
It is my hope that we can embrace, not fear, the necessary science to help our planet. I feel it is imperative that we begin to find ways to adapt to climate change, while at the same time working to mitigate it. Unfortunately we are already on a path toward significant change, but if we apply ourselves I believe we can find ways to create alternatives to burning oil and coal. We need multiple simultaneous approaches to solve this problem, with the goal of net zero carbon emissions to stabilize atmospheric concentrations and ensure our survival. These are massive challenges for each and every one of us. For our children's future and for the future of our species and our planet I hope that we can rise to the challenge.
Thank you very much.
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