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Saturday, November 6, 2010

Bug Power – The Man who created Life hails coal-eating bugs

In 1919, just after the terrible blood-spill we now call the First World War, poet William Butler Yeats wrote these chilling words in The Second Coming:
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Now, born in Utah, comes a man who has created a rough beast, leaving us to wonder whither it slouches.
Craig Venter, a former surf bum turned scientist-entrepreneur described by Time as a 'transformative figure', in a 2007 interview with the New Scientist was asked: Assuming you can make synthetic bacteria, what will you do with them?, and he replied:
We really need to find an alternative to taking carbon out of the ground, burning it, and putting it into the atmosphere. That is the single biggest contribution I could make.
Craig Venter
One of our three themes in our thriller, Obelisk Seven, is the tension caused in the world by a new microbe that consumes the carbon in oil and coal deposits. We dreamed up this third link between our two first themes (the quest for ending global warming, and the search for the cause of signals coming from ancient Egyptian obelisks) and then set about checking to see if our assumptions about carbon eating microbes were realistic.
They were.
We came across Craig Venter, who discovered ancient bacteria that can turn coal into methane, and perhaps solve the energy crisis:
The bugs, discovered a mile underground by one of Venter’s microbial prospecting teams, are said to have unique enzymes that can break down coal.
Venter even suggested the discovery could open up the world’s coalfields to an entirely new form of mining, where coal is infected with the bacteria, allowing methane to be harvested “without even digging up the coal”.
He said: “We have a large number that eat coal and break it down into organic acids, hydrogen, CO2 and so on. Then we have other organisms with enzymes that can take those organic acids, hydrogen and CO2 and make methane.”
Just who is Craig Venture?
Craig Venter's synthetic bacteria
He is a remarkable man, who has created a company that is in the forefront of many discoveries, any one of which would make the average scientist drool with envy, and consider his life's work well done with just that one.
He is the man who has created life.
How did this man do that?
Dr Venter has created an artificial version of the DNA – the set of chemical instructions which determine what an individual cell will build and reproduce – for a very simple form of bacteria, and has inserted this into a cell from which the original DNA had been removed. The bacterium reproduced itself normally, using Dr Venter's version of the DNA (from which he had removed about 100 genes), eventually creating more than a billion copies.
Creating an artificial bacterium could lead to problems, so the Venter team added some identifying markers to the bacteria in a manner even a poet would be proud of:
The researchers deliberately inserted four sequences of DNA that serve as watermarks so they could distinguish between the naturally occurring and synthetic bacteria. The watermarks contain a code that translates DNA into English letters with punctuation, allowing the scientists to literally write messages with the genes. When translated, the watermarks spell out the names of the 46 researchers who helped with the project, quotations from James Joyce, physicist Richard Feynman and J. Robert Oppenheimer, and a URL that anyone who deciphers the code can e-mail.
A marriage of poetry and science – Craig Venter, our heroine, Kate Stanton, would salute you for this combination.

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