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Supermicrobe Man

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    NHNE News List Current Members: 750 Subscribe/unsubscribe/archive info at the bottom of this message. ... SUPERMICROBE MAN By Douglas McGray Wired Magazine
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 24, 2002
      NHNE News List
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      By Douglas McGray
      Wired Magazine
      Issue 10.12 - December 2002



      J. Craig Venter is used to confronting (and confounding) skeptics. In 1998,
      he raised eyebrows with his bold promise to sequence the human genome ‹ and
      do it faster than a government team with an eight-year head start and $3
      billion in federal money. Using only venture capital, he delivered in less
      than three years -- and got rich off his method of "shotgun sequencing." But
      his company, Celera, flopped, finding few buyers for the genomic data it
      hoped to sell. The biotech firebrand's latest idea seems even more
      fantastic. From the Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives, one of
      three nonprofits he launched in 2002, Venter describes a new application for
      shotgun sequencing: to engineer supermicrobes that, harnessed by
      bioreactors, will scrub CO2 emissions, converting them into hydrogen -- and
      clean air. Take a breath: Venter plans to crank out 100 million sequences a

      ANTHONY HAMBOUSSI FOR WIRED: Sequencing the human genome has been compared
      to landing on the moon. How would you describe your next project?

      VENTER: The potential for this is, well, I guess you'd have to go back to a
      Superman movie -- it's to save the planet.

      WIRED: So what's your plan?

      VENTER: The goal is to engineer a new species of microorganism from scratch
      -- to improve metabolic function by orders of magnitude so that we can make
      biological CO2 scrubbers for power plants. The organism's genetic structure
      would allow it to exist only in a specialized environment, so if it ever got
      outside, it would immediately die.

      WIRED: How big would this environment have to be?

      VENTER: Based on the metabolic rates of existing microorganisms, you'd
      probably need something the size of an ocean. But if we can boost metabolic
      processes 1,000-fold, we can reduce carbon volumes 1,000-fold. Many
      biological processes have been sped up 10,000-fold or greater. I think it
      has to get down to a swimming pool-sized environment for a power plant, or a
      reactor that size.

      WIRED: And that pool full of microbes could potentially produce hydrogen gas
      on the side for fuel cells?

      VENTER: If we had between 100- and 1,000-fold amplification, hydrogen gas
      would be bubbling out of these things like crazy.

      WIRED: When you say engineer a new species from scratch, you mean something
      substantially different from, say, manipulating crop genes or modifying
      goats to spin spider silk?

      VENTER: That's relatively trivial, everyday molecular biology. This is
      trying to see if we can define life based on first principles -- these are
      the genes required for metabolism to produce energy, these are the ones
      required to make the cell wall work, and so forth.

      WIRED: Once you've got the microbes, then what?

      VENTER: We're using the techniques I developed for sequencing the genome.
      Traditionally, biologists have taken concentrated microbes and tried to grow
      different species out of them.

      If they could grow a species, they studied it. That's how we've missed
      probably 99.9 percent of what's out there. Instead of starting out looking
      for species, we're going to take the DNA we find in one part of the ocean --
      whether it lives or dies in a captive environment -- sequence it, and then
      use the computer to separate that into different species. We'll be able to
      describe what they look like and what they do. Nobody's tried anything like
      this before. It's a whole new way of looking at the environment.

      WIRED: Kind of like sequencing the population of New York and sorting out
      who's who from the code?

      VENTER: Yeah, exactly!

      WIRED: How many organisms will you sequence at once?

      VENTER: At the beach, a milliliter of surface water will typically contain 1
      million bacteria and 10 million viruses. Think about that next time you fall
      off your surfboard and take a big swallow of seawater. In different parts of
      the ocean it varies. We're going to start the experiment with the Sargasso
      Sea [in the North Atlantic]. The Sargasso is nutrient-poor, so the number of
      species there and the density of life is much lower. Later, we plan to test
      whether we can take all the DNA from one of Yellowstone's volcanic pools and
      work out what's in there.

      WIRED: Why hasn't anyone else done this?

      VENTER: It would have been inconceivable to most scientists even five years
      ago; they would have said it's impossible in terms of the processing power.
      Now, we think the Sargasso Sea experiment of sequencing every organism in
      the ocean will take about a week.

      WIRED: So you need shotgun sequencing, plus some pretty significant

      VENTER: We're building an extremely large, state-of-the-art sequencing
      center with a higher capacity than anything existing today. It will
      ultimately be capable of more than 100 million sequences a year. Keep in
      mind that 26 million gave us the human genome. We're going to be trying some
      new technologies that might allow us to get information on maybe 10,000
      genomes an hour in the microbial world.

      WIRED: Where is your funding coming from?

      VENTER: The seed money is from the J. Craig Venter Science Foundation. And
      we've received a $3 million grant from the Department of Energy for the
      energy institute -- they're pretty excited about these processes.

      WIRED: Are you glad to have a new set of colleagues? By the end of
      sequencing the human genome, there were some hard feelings all around.

      VENTER: And there still seem to be. Well, nobody likes to lose, or appear to
      lose, and I guess some of our colleagues in the genome race feel they
      clearly lost, so they're a little bitter over it. You know, human genetics
      is probably the single most cutthroat field I've seen in biology. The
      vindictive nature of some of these scientists is truly stunning. I'm hoping
      people in energy have the higher good of what they're trying to accomplish
      in mind.

      WIRED: One prominent microbial biologist described you as a relative
      beginner when it comes to these bugs. What do you think?

      VENTER: Absolutely guilty, and I'm proud of it. Usually it's somebody coming
      in from the outside who makes the breakthroughs.


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