November 15, 2011

Can Algae Save the World? A Q&A with Craig Venter

David Biello,

Algae may hold potential as both the food and the fuel of the future.
CREDIT: bogdan ionescu, Shutterstock

Microbes will be the (human) food- and fuel-makers of the future, if J. Craig Venter has his way. The man responsible for one of the original sequences of the human genome as well as the team that brought you the first living cell running on human-made DNA now hopes to harness algae to make everything humanity needs. All it takes is a little genomic engineering.

"Nothing new has to be invented. We just have to combine [genes] in a way that nature has not done before. We're speeding up evolution by billions of years," Venter told an energy conference on October 18 at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C. "It's hard to imagine a part of humanity not substantially impacted."

Venter turned his attention to the genetic manipulation of algae after a two-year cruise to sample DNA in the ocean. The goal was to harvest the building blocks of the future for a biology that has been converted from the bases A, C, G and T into 1's and 0's—a digitized biology. He found that most of the millions of genes collected came from algae, one of the tinier organisms on the planet but one that already has an outsized planetary impact, providing more than a third of the oxygen we breathe.

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