Jay Keasling When he received his DISCOVER award, Keasling was rejiggering microbes’ DNA to manufacture a cheap, effective treatment for malaria. Now the Department of Energy has given Keasling another world-rescuing task: Engineer similar microbes to spit out environmentally friendly fuel. As director of the new DOE Joint BioEnergy Institute at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California—one of three upcoming national Bioenergy Research Centers—Keasling will head the institute’s efforts to support President Bush’s goal of reducing U.S. gasoline consumption by 20 percent within 10 years. “We can use the technology that we’ve developed already in my lab to produce something akin to the gasoline that you pump into your tanks right now,” Keasling says, “only produce it from a renewable source.”
It took millions of years of unrelenting heat and pressure to turn buried decomposing organic matter into fuel, but Keasling hopes to accomplish the same basic feat within a few hours in a fermentation tank. All he needs is the right mix of matter and microbes. At his institute, agronomists will work on identifying or creating the fuel crop of the future, while bio-prospectors will hunt for enzymes that quickly convert tough, indigestible cellulose into sugar. Keasling’s contribution to the work is to engineer microbes so they can turn that sugar into transportation fuel. He can already make some molecules—like alkanes and long-chain alcohols—that look as if they might work well as components of a good gasoline substitute.
Meanwhile, Keasling’s fight against malaria continues unabated. Last year his team found that yeast is more efficient than E. coli as a microbial chemical factory to churn out artemisinin, a potent antimalarial drug. Keasling is now sorting through proposals from pharmaceutical companies that want to make the drug using the new technology. The winning partner will forgo the lab’s shaker flasks and hot plates in favor of giant vats. One studio-apartment-size fermentor running 24/7 could make enough artemisinin to treat the entire world.