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Financial Times: Leading the evolution out of the fossil fuel age

By Peter Marsh
Published: October 22 2007 03:00 | Last updated: October 22 2007 03:00

Craig Venter, the DNA researcher, has lofty ambitions for Synthetic Genomics, the US company he set up two years ago on the back of a scientific career in which he helped decipher the human genome.

“Within the next five years we are aiming to create products with trillion-dollar markets that use a series of novel biochemical processes to replace the products of the petrochemical industry,” he says.

Mr Venter is a leader in the field of synthetic biology, in which genetic fragments of plant or animal cells are manipulated to develop new materials.

Synthetic Genomics has been set up with about $60m in funds from private investors, mainly in the US. The company is trying to establish a scientific basis for how organisms’ genetic code influences their behaviour. It would use this to modify existing cellular mechanisms or make new ones.

Among the substances that Mr Venter is trying to create – mainly using plants as starting blocks – are new forms of jet fuels, plastics, substitutes for petroleum and chemicals that could absorb carbon dioxide from power stations to combat global warming.

Plant-based products could be easier and cheaper to develop than those based on chemicals derived from fossil fuels, he says. These developments could ease the world away from dependence on oil, natural gas and coal and pave the way toindustries based on renewable materials, he believes.

“Craig is a pioneer in an infant industry that could change how the world develops new chemical products,” says Juan Enriquez, chief executive of Biotechonomy, a group based in Massachusetts that is one of Synthetic Genomics’ investors.

Mr Venter’s reputation was established by his pioneering role in decoding the 3bn chemical “letters” of the human genome – the DNA blueprint that controls how our bodies function and is a key to evolution.

Announced in a blaze of publicity in 2000, the sequencing of the human genome was a result of work by Celera Genomics, a US company of which Mr Venter was president, and public-sector scientists round the world.

In the past decade, dozens of companies have been set up to exploit novel biological processes and related ideas.

Techniques are being explored by large businesses such as the oil groups BP and Shell, DuPoint, the chemical company, and GlaxoSmithKline, the pharmaceutical business.

According to Ralf Wagner, joint chief executive of Geneart, a company in Germany that custom-makes genes for use by businesses, Mr Venter stands out as “having a complete vision” for how new biological ideas could make an impact in the corporate world.

Mr Venter says he wants in the next few years to organise 10 to 20 “corporate alliances”. Big companies would join forces with Synthetic Genomics on specific research projects in exchange for taking small stakes in the company.

So far the company has announced deals with BP and the Asiatic Centre for Genome Technology, part of Malaysia’s Genting industrial conglomerate, both aimed at finding new pathways to produce biofuels.

But it is clear that he is interested in a much broader range of substances. Mr Venter recently found a way to transform one bacterial species into another by means of a “genome transplant”.

This is a key step towards making a microbe from scratch, which could herald the creation of life forms in the laboratory.

About 70 people work for Synthetic Genomics and the J. Craig Venter Institute, a privately funded research centre. Mr Venter’s approach at the company might prevent him from attaining commercial goals, says Stephen del Cardayre, vice-president for research at LS9, a US biofuels company.

“Rather than try to solve specific problems, Craig is exploring a lot of futuristic technological challenges in the hope that this will lead to big commercial opportunities,” he says.

But it is this breadth of Mr Venter’s vision that appeals to Steve Jurvetson, managing director of Draper Fisher Jurvetson, a California venture capital firm that is another of Synthetic Genomics’ backers.

According to Mr Jurvetson, it might soon be possible to make new metal-based chemicals by “splicing” iron, aluminium or other atoms into organic structures that have been made possible by Mr Venter’s genetic techniques. These new materials could eventually be used to produce parts for car bodies.

“What Craig is doing could turn out as important as what computer scientists were doing in the 1970s and 1980s, Mr Jurvetson says.

“He is taking the world into a new era.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007

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