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Published: February 24, 2009


William Haseltine: The Thought Leader Interview

If you think about the future of biotechnology, what’s old is becoming new again.

S+B: What do you mean by that?
HASELTINE: Biotechnology literally means technology applied to manipulate the living world. Humans have been at this a very long time. It’s one of the oldest technologies, and its greatest successes have been in agriculture, animal husbandry, and fermentation.

Now we are back in the same arenas, with a new set of emerging technologies. To give you an idea of the excitement around the use of biotechnology for energy: The Berkeley Center for Synthetic Biology received about US$1 billion in grants in 2007. I’m the chairman of the board of trustees of this group. It was founded and is directed by Jay Keasling, a professor of bio- and chemical engineering at Berkeley and the director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Physical Biosciences Division. About half the energy research money came from BP and the other half came from federal grants. This is only the be­ginning. Biotechnology will be the basis for a whole new petro­leum-free carbon-based economy.

Carbon-neutral Energy Farms

S+B: How would synthetic biology produce energy on a mass scale?
HASELTINE: Synthetic biology is not a name I like. I prefer to call this new discipline constructive biology, because this form of biology constructs new molecules.

But to answer your question: Plants have been fixing carbon from the atmosphere with the energy of sunlight, and converting it to fossil fuel, over the course of several hundred million years. This means that living systems have the power, of course, to make our fuel. The trick is to do it much, much faster.

We already know how to effectively create biomass from plants. We grow forests for wood; we have agriculture. With a combination of modern biotechnology techniques we could remove carbon from the air, turn it into a fuel, use that fuel, and return the carbon to the at­mosphere so the whole process is carbon-­neutral with respect to the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Essentially, these techniques would allow us to farm en­ergy, coupling the photosynthetic process with biochemical production of useful hydrocarbons.

Let me take you back in time to think about that for a minute. Before there was life on Earth, it was basically a wet, hot rock. When it cooled down, it was a rock with water. Living organisms arose (we’re not quite sure how), and over the course of several billion years, they transformed rock and water into this beautiful Earth. That’s enormous chemical power, and all of it is locked up in the genes of organisms that proliferate all over the world.

Now that we can directly read genomes, store them in computers, and analyze them, and splice genes from one organism to another, we can move hydrocarbons through almost any chemical pathway we want. Suppose you wanted to take yeast that normally makes ethanol and convert it to yeast that makes diesel fuel. You would write up the chemical path to show the normal process to ethanol, and then reroute the path to diesel fuel. In modern organic chemistry, that would involve a series of eight or nine steps in a test tube using various catalysts. But now you can use genome database analysis to identify and isolate enzymes that can provide that pathway naturally. You can then modify those enzymes so they’re more efficient. This is an example of constructive biology.

We know constructive biology works because these were the methods used to produce the antimalarial drug artemisinin in both bacteria and yeast. Plants use a very complicated and expensive process to make artemisinin. At the Center for Synthetic Biology, a project led by Jay Keasling (and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) re-created the entire pathway both in bacteria and in yeast. That breakthrough, which makes artemisinin cheaper to produce and therefore affordable to the world’s poorest children, has made Keasling a leader in the field of constructive biology.

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