The Philosophical Society of Washington

Minutes of the 2,205th Meeting

President William Saalbach called the 2,205th meeting to order at 8:22 pm April 7, 2006. The minutes of the 2,204th meeting were read and approved.

Mr. Saalbach then introduced the speaker of the evening, Mr. Ari Patrinos. Mr. Patrinos is president of Synthetic Genomics, Inc. He spoke on “The Promise of Biotechnology for Applications in Energy and the Environment.”

Mr. Patrinos said he was privileged to be with the Department of Energy most of his career and to be able to do biological energy research. Biology in the Energy Department was an unusual mix; this produced some tension, and the tension was responsible for some of the very important contributions the program has made to many of the problems we face as humanity today.

He hoped to imprint three messages in our minds, to convey to the rest of the world. One, biology is undergoing a tremendous revolution, and the spark that started it was the human genome project. He said that he thought the reason that project was started in the Department of Energy was that it was an organization where it was customary and accepted that they would deal with big, expensive projects, where people “ not think twice about billions.”

The second message was that we, the planet and the country, are facing tremendous problems in energy, the environment, and climate change. He is no longer circumspect, he thinks it is a very serious problem, it needs to be dealt with, and there is no other way than to deal with the energy problem. We need to wean ourselves off oil. There is a lot of oil out there, but a lot of it is in places where “they don't like us very much,” and we have passed or are about to pass the high point of world oil production.

The third message was that solutions to the problems will not be possible without biology. It won't be biology exclusively, for example he does endorse a nuclear energy effort, but biology will be critical in solving these problems.

The Human Genome Project has made remarkable progress since it was started by the Energy Department in 1986. In 1990, Energy and NIH joined forces on it. In 2000, a draft of the human genome was completed. In 2003, the human genome was declared complete on the 50th anniversary of the Watson-Crick paper. Along the way, great interest has developed in genome sequencing, and now a large number, in the neighborhood of 1000, organisms have been sequenced or the work is in progress. This gives us the capability of comparative genomics.

He turned to the subject of microbes. They are responsible for ocean carbon pumping, biomass conversion, methane production, hydrogen production, carbon sequestration, radiation resistance, bioremediation, and many other important functions. Microbes co-evolved for 4 billion years with other life on earth and function today at the core of the world's ecology.

He showed a picture of a leaking iron mine. You can leave a tool in a pool of leach overnight and the next day it is gone. Small microbial communities process it.

DNA studies indicate that we all came from a small band of about 10,000 people that lived in Africa about 100,000 years ago. Mitochondrial DNA from Neanderthals is quite different from ours. Mitochondrial DNA studies tend to confirm the single-origin theory and indicate that no Neanderthals were among the ancestors of current humans. They indicate there were seven Daughters of Eve – most Europeans descended from seven women. Only a few more might account for all of humanity today.

He discussed the importance of the ribosome and the use of X-rays to understand its structure and function. This has been a major, rapid change in the methodology of biology.

He also discussed the importance of high-performance computing. He showed a graph of teraflops related to recent accomplishments in biology. While teraflops went from one to 1000, accomplishments went from comparative genomics through protein threading and other events to molecule-based cell simulation.

He turned then to carbon emissions. Carbon emissions have gone from a little over 5 billion tons in 1990 to almost 10 billion tons a year today. Forward projections from today vary extremely widely. A business-as-usual projection points to 50 billion tons a year by 2070. Assuming advances in fossil fuels, nuclear technology, energy intensity, and renewable fuels, he could expect carbon emissions to reach about 15 billion tons. Assuming development of new techniques such as carbon capture and disposal, use of hydrogen and other advances in transportation, and development of biotechnologies, we might get carbon emission back to about 5 billion tons a year.

Business as usual bets the planet, he said.

The grand challenges facing biology include conversion of cellulose to ethanol, toxic waste cleanup, stabilizing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and development of biohydrogen industry. These need to be accomplished by about 2050.

120,000 terawatts of energy arrive on earth from the sun. If it is converted at 1% efficiency, 3.86% of the land, not including ocean, could produce the 13 terawatts used today.

Plants might replace fossil resources. Miscanthus grass can produce as much as 17 tons an acre. Oil palms can produce significant amounts of oil. Indeed, plants are largely composed of cellulose, hemi-cellulose, and lignin. Plants did not evolve to have maximal productivity, they were bred. A wild tomato is about the size of a grape. Plants have not been selected for energy production yet. With recently developed tools, progress should be rapid.

The Energy Department's “ethanol vision” involves moving from corn-based ethanol to sugar-based production in the 2010 to 2015 period and, after that, using microbes to enable ethanol production from cellulose. With this process, they hope to get the cost of ethanol down to about $.91 from the current $3.78 a gallon.

After the talk, there were many questions. One person noted that his projections did not include fusion power. Mr. Patrinos said he would not exclude fusion, but he does not expect it to become available soon – not in 20 years, perhaps in 40. He was optimistic about extracting energy from sewage. He discussed the success in Brazil of producing ethanol from sugar cane. One questioner brought giggles by suggesting, instead of converting stuff to ethanol, burning it directly in automobiles using steam engines. Mr. Patrinos pointed out that the ethanol fits the current hardware better; even current engines can be converted cheaply. Ethanol will run in pipelines and store in tanks that currently exist.

Another person asked if the current warming is part of the cycle or an aberration. Temperatures have been higher and lower before. Mr. Patrinos said that he believes the human fingerprint in the current situation is obvious. He said we have only one planet, and even if there is only a slight chance, he would not bet the planet on it.

After the discussion, Mr. Saalbach presented Mr. Patrinos a plaque commemorating the occasion. He made a pitch for support of the society through membership and contributions. He introduced three new members. He made the usual housekeeping announcements and invited everyone to enjoy the social hour. Finally, at 9:37 pm, he adjourned the 2,205th meeting.

The weather: Occasional light rain, some dramatic lightning and thunder
The temperature: 12°C
Attendance: 53

Respectfully submitted,

Ronald O. Hietala,
Recording secretary

←Previous Minutes - Abstract & Speaker Biography - Next Minutes→
Directory of Archived Meetings - Home