This article is more than 1 year old

Promote your local synthetic biologist

Oh, hold on. You don't need to

Since this is the active reality, one must expect bragging about the character of our future saviors.

"[There's] a nobleness and commitment they bring to these problems that I find really inspiring," said [prince of Silicon venture capital] John Doerr to the Times in June. Of course, he was bankrolling the same noblemen.

Summer was also for newspapermen to declare a consortium of universities working on biofuels - Stanford, UC Davis and UC Berkeley - to be the equivalent of the Manhattan Project, press which some scientists actually involved seemed to believe. (This Manhattan Project is in addition to the Manhattan Project the US military mounted to conquer IEDs. That went well.)

A lab director from Berkeley, Graham Fleming, told the Contra Costa Times the work was "probably the most important thing any of us will do in our scientific lives... We're off on a great adventure".

"Cellulosic ethanol is just the beginning, and not even an ideal one," reported the journalist tasked with delivering the grand vision. The reader will have noticed that, historically, the work of many scientists being compared favorably to the Manhattan Project prior to actually achieving anything is a recent American invention, perhaps to sow confusion and head off disappointment if, and when, new Manhattan Projects flop.

Protein rich

"'Grow a house' is on the to-do list of the MIT Synthetic Biology Working Group, presumably meaning that an acorn might be reprogrammed to generate walls, oak floors and a roof instead of the usual trunk and branches," reported the New York Times in publishing another blowhard piece on synbio in July.

Ten years ago, people from MIT were dispensing this scented bathwater.

"[We may develop] a tree which has gasoline or kerosene as its sap... Maybe you'll plant a house, let it grow, and then move into it," wrote W Daniel Hillis, ex of the MIT Media Lab for the LA Times in 1997.

While at Lehigh University and working on a PhD in chemistry in the mid-Eighties, this writer was familiar with a faculty member, a molecular geneticist, studying Trichoderma reesei, a fungus which produced cellulases. Of course, the big-eyed idea then was also to define and apply the science enough so as to enable the maximum production of cellulase for use in production of biofuels.

The scientist built a career on it, but cellulosic ethanol still isn't running the country. Although cellulase from T. reesei is used in the digestion of cellulose, it is not especially inexpensive or practical. In the past couple of years, an oil-rush-before-actual-oil industry has sprung up, one which promises cheap cellulases as well as many other things. Much of it is new snake oil for the investment rubes, lubricating jacked-up subsidies, grants, and hand-outs to the corn industry for benefits no one sees except as costlier food.

Without going into great detail on why the infinite bounty of nature's enzymes has resisted easy lending to cheap-as-water industrial transformations, it may suffice to say that old-timey molecular geneticists and biochemists knew something of the limitations in engineering various microbial boxes. And they tended not to waste a lot of time explaining it to journalists who usually didn't want to hear it, anyway.

It involves some complication to explain precisely why, for example, active proteins which work miraculously well for the microbial systems in which they evolve, tend to become increasingly unstable when removed, purified, and put in a different environment. Regardless of having genetic sequences for the production of cellulases in hand, lifetimes can be spent puzzling over and characterising the fine details of a protein's chemistry and its interaction with the world at large.

A. Richard Newton, the dean of the college of engineering at UC Berkeley, was "at the forefront of advocating for the use of synthetic biology to make fuel and drugs for malaria", reported Inside Bay Area last January - in his obituary. ®

George Smith is a senior fellow at, a defense affairs think tank and public information group. At Dick Destiny, he blogs his way through chemical, biological, and nuclear terror hysteria, often by way of the contents of neighbourhood hardware stores.

More about


Send us news

Other stories you might like