Secretary of Synthetic Biology Indeed

By Carl Zimmer | January 13, 2009 4:19 pm

Over at Science News, Janet Raloff has a report about Steven Chu’s appearance earlier today before the Senate for his nomination to be Secretary of Energy. It sounds like he really perked up when asked about biofuels from synthetic biology:

Chu explained that the two-year-old program is striving to develop fourth-generation biofuels. To date, researchers at the lab have “trained” bacteria and yeast to take simple sugars and produce “not ethanol, but gasoline-like substitutes, diesel-fuel substitutes and jet [fuel] substitutes.” He says a cadre of “brilliant” scientists who had previously spent most of their careers in basic research is now “very focused on making this technology commercially viable.”

Asked about what type of plant material would be used — since Lincoln was hoping it might be grown in Arkansas — Chu perked up and chuckled: “Now we’re getting to science. I love this!”

Currently, no particular plants are being focused on, but they could include anything from algae and corn stover to grasses and lumber-mill dust and scrap. So Chu reassured Lincoln that her state grows suitable raw materials.

But the real key to making these next-gen biofuels, Chu says, will be figuring out how to design feedstock plants that would grow using fewer energy inputs and prove more robust in the field. The program’s also investigating pretreatments for plant-based cellulosic feedstocks. Their goal: to facilitate the ability of single-cell organisms to break these materials down by separating out and discarding the molecules that plants make to protect themselves from attack by microbes and fungi.

Such a multi-pronged approach looks to optimize all phases of biofuels production with no preconceived idea of which area is likely to offer the biggest payoff. And that, Chu said, “is why I’m so optimistic some real progress can be made.” And rapidly.

I expected this. Unfortunately, nobody asked Chu to estimate how much land would be required in Alabama and elsewhere to grow enough food to allow these hungry little bugs to make a significant contribution to our energy needs. Nor did anyone ask Chu to comment on the potential environmental impacts of harvesting so much plant matter, a topic I brought up recently in an article on the environmental effects of synthetic biology.

But, then again, I wonder how many senators even know what synthetic biology is. Perhaps it’s time they find out.


Comments (4)

  1. Everything has a price, but this is really cool. It is also really cool to have a real scientist back in the political mix.

  2. Photosynthesis first thing goes through RuBisCO, the slowest (2-3 turnovers/sec) least efficient (less than 1% of input solar energy becoming chemistry), worst (50% of output poisoned by oxygen) enzyme on Earth that is 30 wt-% of soluble leaf protein. Bio-this and fuel-that is a load of crap. Gene-gineer RuBisCO to a dismal 20 turnovers/second and 15% effciency. Your biomass yields increase 100X. ONE HUNDRED-FOLD

    Maize pimp Archer-Daniels-Midland is the anti-Christ. Put a bunch of Caltech undergrads in a summer genetic recombination lab. Corn real world
    yields 18 gal/acre biodiesel. Oil palm yields 635 gal/acre biodiesel. You need not be a Head Start dropout to realize 63,500 gal/acre biodiesel is hot stuff. 90 million acres of US corn/year are planted, 14 million in Iowa.

    (60,000 gal/acre)(14 million acres)($2 gallon) = $1.68 trillion

    Is that sufficiently motivating, Iowa?

  3. Arturo D

    Some folks at the University of Texas at Austin are trying to engineer cyanobacteria to produce biofuels.
    This sounds much better than using any kind of crop.
    They have a video explaining their approach at


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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.


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