INSIGHT: Brought to life through chemical synthesis

21 May 2010 16:49  [Source: ICIS news]

By Nigel Davis

LONDON (ICIS news)--Has the unimaginable been unleashed by Craig Venter and his team at the J Craig Venter Institute (JCVI) in Maryland, as media reports imply? Or is the successful transfer of a man-made genome into a living cell simply another, albeit critical, step along the path to synthetic biofuels, novel vaccines and sustainable feedstocks for the chemical industry?

Venter has dismissed claims that he has created new life in the lab, although some geneticists and ethicists appear to disagree. He has, however, reached the target set for his group for 2010 of sustaining a previously created genome in a living cell. The synthetic genome was sequenced two years ago.

Venter’s team has created the world’s first ‘synthetic cell’ - a cell powered by a synthetic chromosome made up of four chemicals. The team’s research success was published on 20 May in Science Express and will subsequently appear in the journal Science.

Many hundreds of millions of dollars are being plugged into synthetic genomics and the search for commercially successful fuels and vaccines.

Energy giant ExxonMobil is pumping $300m into algae research at Venter’s Synthetic Genomics Inc (SGI), which is also supported by drugs group Novartis and had seed funding from oil producer BP.

SGI funded the JCVI research. It has focused on bio-energy but says its work is extending to food production, clean water and vaccines.

A $600m total commitment from ExxonMobil to algae-based biofuels is hardly insignificant and reflects the importance it places on the emerging technologies that will support algal-based hydrocarbon production.

When it comes to biofuels and to a great extent to more sustainable chemicals production, algae are a good bet. They require only sunlight, water and carbon dioxide to produce ‘bio-oils’ and fuels similar in molecular structure to the petroleum and refined products that are used today. And algae-based hydrocarbon production does not have to occupy valuable arable land.

Algae potentially could produce 2,000 gallons of fuel per acre per year, ExxonMobil reckons, compared with 650 gallons per acre per year for palm, 450 for sugar cane and 250 for corn.

“Algae used to produce biofuels are highly productive. As a result, large quantities of algae can be grown quickly, and the process of testing different strains of algae for their fuel-making potential can proceed more rapidly than for other crops with longer life cycles,” ExxonMobil says.

And ExxonMobil is developing with SGI a continuous skimming process, according to market analysts, rather than a batch system in which the organisms are killed in each cycle. That should raise production efficiencies. SGI’s ground-breaking work coupled with ExxonMobil’s engineering and processing expertise make a powerful combination.

Venter believes that synthetic genomics will change the world. The chemical industry will come to depend on it, he told London-based magazine New Scientist a few years ago. So could a large part of the energy industry.

Those days may only be a decade or two away. And practical applications could well be seen in chemicals first.

The pursuit of bio-based processes and products is widespread and active, as the research portfolios of some of the leading chemicals producers demonstrate.

“The real challenge to creating a viable next-generation biofuel is the ability to produce it in large volumes, which will require significant advances in both science and engineering,” Venter said last year when the SGI collaboration with ExxonMobil was announced.

Based on the latest work, Venter believes his team could synthesise a new chromosome within three to four months and attempt to repeat the process. The team has yet to transfer the process to algae or to find a possibly universal recipient biological system.

The JCVI scientists envision that the knowledge gained by constructing the first self-replicating synthetic cell, coupled with decreasing costs for DNA synthesis, will lead to wider use of “this powerful technology”, the JVCI said in a statement on Thursday. “This will undoubtedly lead to the development of many important applications and products including biofuels, vaccines, pharmaceuticals, clean water and food products,” it added.

The latest breakthrough in the JVCI labs has been rightly called a defining moment in science. It could be a defining moment in technology.

Read Doris de Guzman's Green Chemicals blog
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By: Nigel Davis
+44 20 8652 3214

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