Researchers Funded by the DOE “Genomes to Life” Program Achieve Important Advance in Developing Biological Strategies to Produce Hydrogen, Sequester Carbon Dioxide and Clean up the Environment
November 13, 2003
WASHINGTON, DC – Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham announced today that Department of Energy-funded researchers have achieved a significant scientific advance in their efforts to piece together DNA strands, thereby helping develop new, biological methods to capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, produce hydrogen and clean the environment.
Joined by J. Craig Venter, Ph.D., head of the Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives (IBEA), Abraham announced that the IBEA has succeeded in stitching together a genome of a phage, or a virus of bacteria. An article by Dr. Venter and his IBEA colleagues describing their accomplishment is in press with the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“Researchers have made an exciting scientific advance that may speed our ability to develop biology-based solutions for some of our most pressing energy and environmental challenges,” Secretary Abraham said. IBEA scientists have assembled more than 5,000 bases or building blocks of DNA to create a small artificial virus, a so-called phage that infects bacteria. Bacteriophages do not infect humans. This advance brings us closer to our goal of creating entire microbes that are 100 to 1,000-times larger than the artificial virus created so far.
“With this advance,” Abraham said, “it is easier to imagine, in the not-too-distant future, a colony of specially designed microbes living within the emission-control system of a coal-fired plant, consuming its pollution and its carbon dioxide, or employing microbes to radically reduce water pollution or to reduce the toxic effects of radioactive waste.”
Dr. Venter, Dr. Hamilton Smith, who was awarded the 1978 Nobel Prize in Physiology, and their IBEA colleagues synthesized a bacteriophage genome from commercially available materials and created an active phage, a harmless microscopic life form that infects bacteria. The researchers accomplished this in 14 days, from start to finish, reducing the time required to synthesize such a microbe from many months, even years to days. This research project is based on principles of molecular biology that have been used and developed in thousands of laboratories around the world over the past 30 years.
In September 2002, the Department of Energy (DOE) awarded a three-year, $3 million grant to IBEA to develop a synthetic genome, as part of IBEA’s efforts to use biology and genetics to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere and to produce biological energy sources that are cost-effective and efficient.
In April 2003, the Department of Energy announced it was increasing its funding to IBEA by $9 million over three years. With the new funds, IBEA scientists will determine the genetic sequences of all the micro-organisms occurring in a natural microbial community. The studies will enable scientists to discover biochemical pathways and organisms that may lead to the development of new methods for carbon sequestration or alternative energy production.
“This research is a next logical step in the efforts to understand the key elements that comprise a biological system,” Secretary Abraham said. “This is a major goal of the biological research carried on by the Nation’s major public and private research organizations – including the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science. The Biological and Environmental Research program office of DOE’s Office of Science funds the IBEA research as part of the Genomes to Life program.”
“What’s more, the future applications of this research go far beyond DOE,” Abraham said, noting such benefits could include the development of better vaccines and safer strategies for gene therapy; improving agricultural crop yields that are better disease resistance and improving strategies for combating agricultural diseases; and even enhancing our ability to detect and defeat potential biothreat agents which is important to homeland security.
Abraham also announced that he is creating a special subcommittee of the department’s Biological and Environmental Research Advisory Committee to conduct a thorough review of IBEA’s research and to recommend ways to accelerate this research and identify the full range of potential benefits to energy missions as well as other areas of vital importance. The new subcommittee will be chaired by Dr. Ray Gesteland, vice president of research and professor of genetics at the University of Utah.
DOE’s Genomes to Life program aims to use the department’s unique computational capabilities and research facilities to understand the activities of single-cell organisms on three levels: the proteins and multi-molecular machines that perform most of the cell’s work; the gene regulatory networks that control these processes; and microbial associations or communities in which groups of different microbes carry out fundamental functions in nature. Once researchers understand how life functions at the microbial level, they hope to use the capabilities of these organisms to help meet many of our national challenges in energy and the environment. The program will combine research in biology, engineering and computation with the development of novel facilities for high-throughput biology projects. More information on the Genomes to Life program is on the Web at genomicscience.energy.gov.
Located in Rockville, Md, the Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives is a nonprofit, research-based institution dedicated to exploring solutions for carbon sequestration using microbes, microbial pathways and plants. For example, genomics could be applied to enhance the ability of terrestrial and oceanic microbial communities to remove carbon from the atmosphere. IBEA will develop and use microbial pathways and microbial metabolism to produce fuels with higher energy content in an environmentally sound fashion. IBEA will undertake genome engineering to better understand the evolution of cellular life and how these cell components function together in a living system. More information on IBEA is available at www.bioenergyalts.org.
See also Secretary Abraham’s Remarks
Jeff Sherwood (DOE), 202/586-5806
Heather Kowalski (IBEA), 301/309-3444