Sustainable America Blog

Will Manmade Bugs Save Us?

Craig Venter is not your usual scientist. He’s attractive and stylish, rides fast motorcycles and sails around the world. He’s self diagnosed himself with ADHD, but this fact combined with his healthy ego may be the very reason he has gone so far in his field. He sets ambitious and seemingly impossible goals like mapping the human genome, which he did faster than anyone expected, and then he achieves them. But his brash and bold style have not won him many fans in the scientific community and he has yet to receive a Nobel Prize despite several incredible breakthroughs.

Photo: J. Craig Venter Institute

His latest forays of experimentation have taken him into the realm of synthetic biology. In other words, Venter has set his aims on creating life. He envisions bugs, for example, that could eat toxic waste and excrete usable fuel or algae that would produce a protein to feed the world. These bugs would be made from DNA combined in a laboratory and then released into the world to do their super hero work.

Venter is not the only one delving into the depths of synthetic biology but he may be the most bold. He claims that he will have created new life from scratch by the end of this summer. Another synthetic life proponent and Stanford University professor Drew Endy envisions a business model similar to iTunes where people all over the world could download a particular strain of DNA to create whatever creature they needed at the moment to fulfill a particular task.

While there are obvious risks to creating a new life form and then releasing it into the world, Venter believes that the potential benefits outweigh the risks. In the recent New York Times op-ed, Venter is quoted as saying:

“Agriculture as we know it needs to disappear. We can design better and healthier proteins than we get from nature. If you can produce the key ingredients with 10 or 100 times the efficiency, that’s a better use of land and resources.”

If Craig Venter and his team can achieve such a feat, he may just be awarded that long deserved Nobel prize.

[The New York Times]

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By the Numbers

Currently 50 million households suffer from food insecurity, meaning that family members cannot always meet their basic food needs.

10 million people a year could be fed through the recovery of just one-fifth of food waste.

Only 2% of food waste is composted or otherwise recycled—62% of paper is recycled.

Consumers throw out about 40% of the fresh and frozen fish they buy.

The U.S. produced 208 pounds of meat per person in 2009—60% more than Europe.

Low income commuters spend a much higher proportion of their wages on gas—8.6% versus 2.1% at $4 per gallon.

Food prices rose 35-40 percentage points between 2002–2008.

Americans consume 25% of the world’s produced oil, but our nation holds less than 3% of the world’s proven oil reserves.

The International Energy Agency says greenhouse gas emissions rose 3.2% last year, with a 9.3% increase in China offsetting declines in the US and EU.


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