Breakthrough in synthetic biology

December 21, 2008 12:00:00 AM PST
This week, a gallon of diesel fuel flowed into a glass jar in a laboratory in Emeryville. The fuel was made the same way beer is made -- fermented by the yeast in a metal tank. But this yeast was genetically programmed. Biofuel is not new, but this method of making it is. Rather than use food crops, it can use waste sugar cane like the crop collected in Brazil. Think of it as a second pressing of olive oil. And rather than processing with chemicals, this method modifies the yeast, programming it specifically to make hydrocarbons. It's not gene splicing; it's a new field called synthetic biology.

"...following in the footsteps of computer programming," says Jack Newman, founder of Amyris, the company that developed the process. "Because what it really is, is being able to program microbes much the way you program a computer. The microbe you use DNA to program, and the computer you use zeros and ones to program."

Late in 2008, a large room in Emeryville became the largest refinery of biofuel manufactured by a program that actually likes bugs.

If this scene looks a little like a brew pub, it's because it's not that different. Inside stainless steel vats, yeast is feasting on sugar. And the byproduct is fuel. The neat part is it doesn't take an exotic process to separate the fuel. It takes a sort of cream separator. It's a centrifuge. Out of one side comes the fuel -- real diesel fuel. The waste that results is not really waste at all; it's reusable biomass. It has a slight smell, but it's a fragrance like beer -- not unlike fruit beer.

Making this stuff a gallon at a time is a long way from mass production. And there is a lot of competition in alternative fuels. But Amyris is not an energy company. Its first product was an anti-malaria drug made with the same process.

"Microbes can make nearly anything you want them to make," adds Newman, "if you can figure out how to reprogram them. With that, you then ask, 'Hey, if I have this really powerful technology, what is it that I want to do?'"

The fuel that comes out of the Amyris process is actually more pure and clean burning than biodiesel made from corn or other foods.

------- Links -------

Synthetic Biology at Berkeley

Amyris Corporation
Emeryville, CA

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