February 8th, 2013
10:44 AM ET

How biotechnology can solve the energy crisis

Editor's Note: The Next List will air a full 30min profile of synthetic biologist Jay Keasling this Sunday, Feb. 10th, at 2:30PM ET (all-new time!) only on CNN.

It's a great time to be working in biotechnology. We are developing powerful new approaches to find cures to diseases, curb climate change and reduce reliance on foreign oil.

Synthetic biology promises to change the world by making biology easier to engineer and enabling solutions to some of the world’s most difficult problems.

At the Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI), I work with a motivated team of people that is at the forefront of the emerging field of advanced biofuels production. Our mission is to develop scientific breakthroughs to help solve the energy crisis.

Inside our Emeryville laboratories, JBEI researchers use the latest techniques in plant science, molecular biology and chemical engineering to produce affordable, sustainable, carbon-neutral fuels identical to gasoline, diesel and jet fuel.

Traditionally, most of the chemicals we use are produced using chemical synthesis, which is the combination of simple chemicals to form more complex ones. For complicated chemicals like drugs, it might take many chemical steps to produce the final molecule. Some chemicals are too difficult or impractical to produce using chemical synthesis. Due to the difficulty in producing these chemicals, many drugs and other products that could make our lives better are not available.

Since 1992, I’ve been redesigning microbes (like yeast) to be miniature chemical reactors that transform sugars into fuels.

Enzymes can do in one step what might take many steps using synthetic organic chemistry. To engineer a microbe to be a chemical factory, we graft genes from plants and other naturally occurring life forms into the microbe. Once inside the cells, the genes produce enzymes that do the chemistry to transform sugars into chemicals.

One of our first products was a yeast that we engineered to produce the life-saving anti-malarial drug artemisinin. Later this year, anti-malarial drugs bearing the microbially produced artemisinin will begin saving the lives of malaria sufferers throughout the world.

At JBEI, we are focused on making biofuels out of sugars. We have engineered microbes to transform sugars into energy-rich fuels that can directly replace petroleum-derived gasoline, diesel and jet fuel. Because we produce biofuels that have identical properties to petroleum-based fuels, there is no need to replace our cars, trucks or planes to use the fuels.

We are also exploring ways to extract sugar from cellulosic biomass, such as paper waste, trees that have fallen down in the forest, the residue of crops such as corn husks and stalks - everything but the kernel of corn - and non-food plants such as switchgrass.

Because plants grow by fixing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, burning a fuel made from cellulosic biomass does not add extra carbon to the atmosphere, unlike the burning of fossil fuels, which produces carbon emissions. In fact, our diesel reduces greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 80 percent over petroleum-derived diesel. And because we produce the fuels from non-edible cellulosic biomass, production of the fuels does not directly compete with food.

There are many advantages to advanced biofuels. That’s why we're focused on converting biomass to biofuels. I’m passionate about advancing basic science for public benefit. That’s my motivation.

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