Friday, April 18, 2003

Venter and Smith:

I was very surprised that the founding of this organization did not receive wider notice:
" IBEA?Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives

Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives (IBEA) is a research-based institution dedicated to exploring solutions for carbon sequestration using microbes, microbial pathways, and plants. For example, genomics could be applied to enhance the ability of terrestrial and oceanic microbial communities to remove carbon from the atmosphere. IBEA will develop and use microbial pathways and microbial metabolism to produce fuels with higher energy content in an environmentally sound fashion. IBEA will undertake genome engineering to better understand the evolution of cellular life and how these cell components function together in a living system."

Craig Venter and his colleagues are planning to engineer an organism from the bottom up. Not to modify an existing organism, but make a new, man-made organism.

Now, before you go haywire and worry about a rogue bacterium or some such, we are assured that because of extensive work on what exactly a microbe can and can't live without, they will be able to make something that, say, eats oil spills, but can't live where spills don't exist. Other parts of the 501 (c) (3) empire that he is building deal with the PR aspects - looking at the ethics of the whole thing, and convincing the public.

At present, they have been able to get a drastically reduced genome to reproduce, but as far as packaging the genome in a working cell, and assigning it a very specific task... that remains in the future.

This technology is certainly of great interest to the newly-formed Department of Homeland Security. Not only in terms of how it could be mis-used, but in the immense potential it shows for dealing with current threats. A specifically-engineered virus could be used to mitigate an anthrax or botulinum attack. Other engineered bacteria might be able to catalyze the breakdown of nerve agents, either defensively during the dispersal itself, or later during victim treatment and site clean-up phases.

Remember, this type of engineering has allowed us to move from using pig insulin for diabetics, produced by processing millions of pounds of pork pancreas, to the production of human analog insulin using non-pathogenic E. coli bacteria.

Venter envisions many more uses for these techniques, using recombinant DNA (rDNA) to both insert and extract sections of DNA that are useful or inert in the target organism. The NIH has guidelines for using rDNA, and Venter's IBEA group will have set up an external committee that monitors his projects.

Stay tuned for the next best thing in bug-nology.