New fuels from a Petri dish?

Petri dish

TEXT OF STORY

Scott Jagow: Let's stay with oil a bit longer.We're on the hunt for alternatives to Middle Eastern oil. Could we find the answer in a petri dish?

Today, the journal Science has some research on synthetic bacteria. Researchers believe these microbes could be turned into fuel. Sam Eaton reports from the Marketplace Sustainability Desk.


Sam Eaton: Scientists say the technology is still about a decade away from reaching your gas tank.

But gene pioneer Craig Venter's success in transplanting the genetic code of one kind of bacteria into another is a huge scientific breakthrough that could eventually have profound economic implications.

Juan Enriquez: What you're witnessing with this announcement is probably the birth of a new industry.

Juan Enriquez is a cofounder of Synthetic Genomics, which has partnered with Venter. He says the ultimate goal is creating micro-organisms from scratch with traits that could do everything from making bio-fuels to sucking up greenhouse gases.

Enriquez: You're beginning to think about taking what you know about life and assembling it a little bit in Lego blocks so that this plus this plus this will generate energy, or this plus this plus this will generate plastics.

Enriquez says even mild success would reap goliath financial returns when it comes to creating new forms of energy.

The company recently partnered with energy giant BP to do just that. It also filed for a patent. But as the science surges ahead, there's growing concern that government regulators need to do more to keep up.

Art Caplan chairs the department of Medical Ethics at the University of Pennsylvania.

Art Caplan: You've got a situation where first, you do need to have safety and adequate oversight to make sure that synthetically engineered microbes don't wind up in places we don't want them to be.

Or in the hands of people like terrorists, who could use the techniques to create superbugs.

Caplan says those obstacles can be resolved through careful oversight. What may prove more challenging, he says, are the philosophical implications. Is life special, or is it nothing more than a bunch of Lego blocks that can be rearranged at will?

In Los Angeles, I'm Sam Eaton for Marketplace.

About the author

Sam Eaton is an independent radio and television journalist. His reporting on complex environmental issues from climate change to population growth has taken him all over the United States and the world.

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