Craig Venter just might save the planet

Craig Venter created the shotgun method of DNA sequencing, massively jumpstarting the way we think about genomics today. He kept going. In 2010, his team managed to create a completely synthetic life -- from a man-made genome. They created DNA sequences, implanted it into a cell, and that cell turned itself into this new life form. Many thought it could not be done. 

In a recent Wired interview, he explains what he's really trying to do with synthetic life

Venter: We’re trying to harness photosynthesis. A key part of photosynthesis is what happens when the sun goes down. Cells convert CO2 into sugar and fat molecules. And they store the fat to burn as energy to get them through the night—the same way we store fat, only that’s just to get us through TV shows. We’re trying to coax our synthetic cells to do what’s happened to middle America, which is store far more fat than they actually were designed to do, so that we can harness it all as an energy source and use it to create gasoline, diesel fuel, and jet fuel straight from carbon dioxide and sunlight. This would shift the carbon equation so we’re recycling CO2 instead of taking new carbon out of the ground and creating still more CO2. But it has to be done on a massive scale to have any real impact on the amount of CO2 we’re putting into the atmosphere, let alone recovering from the atmosphere.

Goetz: A massive industrial scale.

Venter: We envision facilities the size of San Francisco. And 10 or 15 of those in this country. We need sunlight, seawater, and non-agricultural land, but you need a lot of photons to drive this. You need a lot of surface area of sunlight to do that. It’s a great use for Arizona. Lots of sunlight there.

Imagine it, huge farms of synthetic bacteria converting our CO2 emissions back into usable energy! It truly would be the exact opposite of our industrial exhausts. Sounds like something right out of a quest in the video game Fallout 3. 

Venter closes his interview with an ominous warning to society. Science remains important, and will continue to be the source of our survival:

We don’t discuss how our society is now 100 percent dependent on science for its future. We need new scientific breakthroughs—sometimes to overcome the scientific breakthroughs of the past. A hundred years ago oil sounded like a great discovery. You could burn it and run engines off it. I don’t think anybody anticipated that it would actually change the atmosphere of our planet. Because of that we have to come up with new approaches. We just passed the 7 billion population mark. In 12 years, we’re going to reach 8 billion. If we let things run their natural course, we’ll have massive pandemics, people starving. Without science I don’t see much hope for humanity.

More at Wired.