A remarkable paper published online today by the journal Science could — emphasis on could — signal the start of an energy revolution, and more generally a manufacturing revolution. By “start” I mean this could be akin to the first twitch of a runner’s leg as she positions herself for the opening pistol shot of a marathon, not a sprint.
The video interview above, conducted by a reporter for the journal with the leader of the research, J. Craig Venter, lays out some of the basics. One prime goal of Venter, a genomics pioneer and entrepreneur (partnering with Exxon Mobil, among others), is to program organisms that, at large scale, could harvest carbon dioxide and generate hydrocarbons, replacing oil as a fuel and feedstock. Nicholas Wade’s news story notes other avenues being pursued to develop next-generation biofuels.
There are other paths being pursued in the early days of the energy quest — including those followed by Nathan Lewis on the frontiers of photovoltaics or Daniel Nocera, with his effort to deconstruct photosynthesis. The Department of Energy is trying to stimulate more breakthroughs, but with a paltry pot of money compared to federal investments in other areas of science that matter to society.
This experiment, putting together a living bacterium from synthetic components, is clumsy, tedious, unoriginal. From the point of view of aesthetic and intellectual elegance, it is a bad experiment. But it is nevertheless a big discovery. It opens the way to the new world of synthetic biology. It proves that sequencing and synthesizing DNA give us all the tools we need to create new forms of life. After this, the tools will be improved and simplified, and synthesis of new creatures will become quicker and cheaper. Nobody can predict the new discoveries and surprises that the new technology will bring. I feel sure of only one conclusion. The ability to design and create new forms of life marks a turning-point in the history of our species and our planet.