Will Custom-Made Microbes Help Power the Future?


When it comes to taking it easy on the planet, TreeHugger does what it can. This planet of ours, after all, has some pretty darn interesting things to offer us. As such, we've become big believers in taking some cues from Momma Earth, especially when it comes to things like design imitating nature (we call that 'biomimicry') and the amazing power of microbial organisms to eat pollution and create energy. The latest big thing we've found is that these microbial organisms can be synthesized and manipulated to perform specific tasks like blink on and off like Christmas lights and imitate photographs based on light sensitivity. Who knew that biology could be so sexy? But there's a lot more that these synthetic microorganisms can do.Synthetic biologists are seeking to create living machines and biological devices that can achieve amazing things in energy and industry. J. Craig Venter, the scientist who sequenced the human genome, wants to create microbes that produce hydrogen for use as fuel. He's started a company called Synthetic Genomics, whose aim is to revolutionize the way energy is produced. According to the site, "Synthetically produced organisms with reduced or reoriented metabolic needs will enable new, powerful, and more direct methods of bio-engineered industrial production. After designing and producing a synthetic chromosome, the team plans to develop a proof of concept in either of two bio-energy applications—hydrogen or ethanol. We believe that the synthetic chromosome, and eventually a synthetic cell, will become an integral tool for the energy industry."

Similarly, at Stanford University, professor James Swartz has been conducting experiments on a soil micro-organism that uses energy absorbed from light to split water molecules, a chemical reaction that produces hydrogen. Typically, organisms that derive energy from the sun (look no further than the oak tree or the grass in your backyard) exploit that energy to grow. And in Cambridge, Mass., GreenFuel Technologies has created "bioreactors" filled with algae. The algae are fed with sunlight, water and carbon-carrying emissions from power plants. The algae are then harvested and turned into biodiesel fuel.

All of this is carried out with a certain degree of risk, of course. Scientists have already created a poliovirus from scratch and more recently recreated the 1918 pandemic flu virus. Is all this tinkering with the micro-fabric of the world worth it? We may just have to wait and see. ZDNet via NY Times