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Building Microbe Refineries

Building Microbe Refineries

This video was recorded at MIT World Host: MIT Museum. Within the next five years, David Berry projects, American drivers may be filling their tanks with gas that's not been pumped out of the ground, but synthesized in a laboratory. And Berry means gas – not ethanol or some other version of the fuel. One of Berry's key venture capital enterprises, LS9, has designed a petroleum molecule "that looks like, tastes like, and is chemically identifiable in every stretch of the imagination to petroleum." Thanks to the genomics and proteomics revolution, sequences of DNA can be read at lightning fast speeds, and DNA proteins can now be made "to order." Berry sees vast new potential for bioengineering. He jumped ship from academia to the business world, he says, to harness bioengineering tools in the most expeditious way possible, to drive innovation where it's most needed, like in the energy marketplace. "Why spend time making ethanol when we can make something we actually want?" Berry poses. Biopetroleum, a synthetic molecule based on sugar, is fundamentally more efficient to generate than ethanol, and behaves precisely as the dirty black stuff we derive from the ground. Berry cites loads of advantages in making our own gas, from utilizing the same storage and distribution facilities, to kicking the foreign fossil fuel habit. "Petroleum is renewable over a 100 million-year lifecycle; biopetroleum is renewable over a couple hours –put in some sugar, get it out," says Berry. While Berry's enterprise may indeed yield "a molecule that matters more than ethanol," it does not help reduce atmospheric CO2 in the short term. "We're only trying to solve one problem at a time," he says. There are plenty of risks and challenges to large-scale production, Berry acknowledges in response to audience questions. He describes measures scientists are discussing to avoid the misappropriation of this synthetic molecule (or other bioengineered products) for malevolent purposes. He admits to some concerns about a steady supply of reasonably priced sugar ("We check the price of corn every day"); and acknowledges obstacles in building giant plants in the U.S. for processing the petroleum. Nevertheless, Berry sees enormous opportunities in the energy market for his project in the not-distant future. When asked if Exxon is worried about his work, Berry responds, "I hope so."

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