The US Departments of Energy (DOE) and Agriculture (USDA) have released its National Biofuels Action Plan [4.9MB] detailing Federal agency and private partnership efforts to accelerate the development of ‘a sustainable biofuels industry’. While first generation biofuels such as corn ethanol have been under tremendous scrutiny in recent months, the US agencies appear to be positioning themselves to offer measurably sustainable biofuel resources that will rely heavily on next generation resources (e.g. non-food, waste biomass) and biologically driven conversion processes. [Principles outlined in Biofuel Plan Factsheet]
The official word – We have Plan
“Federal leadership can provide the vision for research, industry and citizens to understand how the nation will become less dependent on foreign oil and create strong rural economies,” USDA Secretary Schafer said. “This National Biofuels Action Plan supports the drive for biofuels growth to supply energy that is clean and affordable, and always renewable.”
Translation: We are hedging our bets on the future of bioenergy!
Looking beyond the rhetoric of energy security, and clear tip of the hat to rural agricultural politics and the influence of mainstream agricultural players, target-based plans do secure federal funding streams for next generation bioenergy solutions. And there are significant funds headed towards innovative start up companies that could develop game-changing bio industrial applications. These start ups could ease our reliance on traditional petrochemicals for making fuels, fertilizers and raw materials processing.
But the key takeaway might be that the DOE is hedging R&D investments on traditional chemical biofuel refining processes (traditional catalysts) by also advancing potentially lower cost biological conversion processes (enzymes/algae).
To develop low cost cellulosic biofuels from non-food biomass feedstock, the agency announced $12.3 million contract with bioenergy startup Novoyzme. The company will be contracted to develop enzymes capable of breaking down strong cellular plant walls under its named project DECREASE (Development of a Commercial-Ready Enzyme Application System for Ethanol).
According to Novoyzme, the company has confirmed plans to launch the enzymes required for commercially viable production of ethanol from cellulose by 2010, midway through this contract, with plans to reach an enzyme cost target that is even further reduced by 2012. But there is still rural politics infused as the primary feedstock is expected to be leftover corn biomass waste.
has long been considered one of the most forward looking technology visionaries in Silicon Valley. He is also one of many Silicon Valley investors becoming very interested (and invested) in the convergence of biosciences and the energy industry. Jurveston sits on the board of Craig Venter’s new company Synthetic Genomics which hopes to tap the power of synthetic biology for energy production.
In this 6 minute ZDNET presentation clip from AlwaysOn GoingGreen conference held on September 10-12th, 2008, Jurvetson explains the implications of accelerating changes in biology, genetics, and synthetic biology to the future of energy.
Accelerating changes in biology and cleantech
The future of biology is likely to converge with other industries like energy within the next 10-20 years.
Bio energy is very complicated subject with enormous potential to change how we produce biofuels, hydrogen and bio-material feedstocks. But it is also in its early ‘hype’ stages of development and we need framers who can eloquently describe how these changes in biology and genetics might someday change energy.
Fortunately for us – Steve Jurveston is one of those visionaries who can explain this convergence of biosciences and energy.
I ask this question from neither a deep-seated fear of dying nor an egotistical desire to live forever. I simply ask it from the perspective of someone who is deeply interested in the accelerating pace of change and is concerned we are heading into a future for which few of us are really prepared.
Let me begin by sharing a couple of recent news items which speak to the astounding progress being made in the field of health care.
To begin, if I am in need of surgery sometime within the next few years, it is likely that that surgery will be conducted with the assistance of a robot. Given that these robots are already better than many human surgeons, this suggest I will not only get out of the hospital faster but that I will be in better condition when I do so. Continued advances in robotics will only improve surgical outcomes over the coming years.
Next, say, I am in an accident. There is now a very good chance – due to advances in the Nationwide Health Information Network, personal electronic records and the ever-improving capability of the Internet – that my providers will be able to rapidly access a growing wealth of medical knowledge in order to keep me alive.
Assuming then that I dodge some of these pesky middle-age risks, there is a very real chance, according to this article, that I’ll soon be able to “grow replacement body parts.” We can already replace our aging hips and knees, but what happens when I can replace my lungs and, eventually, my heart?
The question is a serious one because society is closer to this future than most people realize.
Alas, these advances – which I remind you are only from the past few days – are just the beginning. I am now 44 years and it is not unreasonable to think, given recent medical progress, that I will live to 100.
But even this is the wrong way to think about this issue. The question I – and all of us, really – need to ask is what further advances will be made in the next 56 years of my life and how might they extend my life past 100 years of age?
The baby boomers are getting older. Their pensions and healthcare will exert an enormous strain on European, north American, East Asian and Australian economies over the next few decades. Advances in medicine and medical technology continue to reduce blood-pressures, patch up hearts, extract cancers and extend life expectancy worldwide, but the brain, it turns out, does not yield to traditional methods, and effective treatments for cognitive decline and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s remain elusive. In the US, the annual cost of care for sufferers of Alzheimer’s is expected to exceed the total current healthcare budget ($1 trillion) as 10 million baby boomers develop the disease (Nixon et al, 2008 , Alzheimer’s Association, 2008).
There is, however, one highly effective preventive treatment: heavy physical exercise cuts one’s risk of stroke and neurodegenerative disease in half (Medina, 2008). Heavy, regular physical exercise improves blood supply to the brain, eliminates free radicals and stimulates the generation of new neurons. In the coming decades, 500 billion dollars or more could thus be saved each year in the US alone if every baby boomer exercised daily. The problem of course is that exercise is difficult and people are sedentary, so sedentary in fact that we are faced with a looming obesity epidemic that compounds the problem of age-related cognitive decline. And there’s no way of using modern medicine to improve people’s motivation to engage in physical exercise, right?
Here’s how it might work in people: A person needing help to exercise would go to a hospital or a private clinic to be fitted with a deep brain stimulation implant capable of activating his reward system (the dopamine system).
This past week I gave a presentation on “The Future of Genomics” to the Minnesota Hospital Association. In the course of my speech, I listed a variety of reasons why society is accelerating toward a future of more personalized medicine, including advances in DNA microarray technology; the growing wealth of genetic knowledge being facilitated by such tools as the “Wikipedia” for Genes and the new “SNPedia;” private money (in the form of the Archon X Prize); the growing number of start-up companies who are making it more possible for people to have either a portion or their entire genome sequenced by companies such as 23andMe, DeCode, Navigenics and Knome); and the recent passage of the Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act (GINA).
Alas, none of these things speak to the possibility like real results. To that end, I’d like to highlight just two articles I came across this morning. The first is from the Wall Street Journal and the article discusses how an old heart drug, bucindolol, has been found to reduce death for people who have a certain genetic mutuation by up to 38%. The second article, “Chemotherapy Get Personal,” reviews the findings of a recent study in the journal Genes and Development which explains how advanced computer algorithms are analyzing the activity of 20,000 genes to better match specific chemotherapy drugs with individual cancer patients.
Mapping the human genome was a great accomplishment, but genes are little more than a list of chemicals – much like a parts list for a jumbo jet. The list isn’t much good unless you know what each part does and how it fits with other parts. Scientists are just now beginning to understand these inter-workings with our genes – how they keep our bodies young and fit, or allow aging and sickness to take over.
Recently, scientists at MIT’s Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research have, for the first time, revealed the “controlling elements” of the yeast genome – findings that can immediately be used towards deciphering the human genome.
The key to understanding how genes are controlled lies in tiny bits of chemicals called regulators that intermittently land on a region of DNA and switch that cell’s genes on or off. This switching responds to temperature changes in the body, availability of certain nutrients, and outside chemical messengers. If switched the wrong way, genes can make diabetes, cancer, and other debilitating diseases begin their horrifying trip – if switched the right way, they protect us.
To date, very few regulators have been identified. Locating their landing sites is essential to identifying their function, and therein lays the rub – gene regulators are hard to find. They typically just land on a small stretch of DNA, do their job, and then take off again. And owing to the vastness of the genome, locating just one gene regulator with conventional lab tools can take many years.
But the MIT team developed a method for scanning an entire genome and quickly identifying the precise landing sites for its gene regulators. As a result, scientists now understand how genes and their regulators “talk” to each other. The next challenge is to scale the platform so it can tackle the human genome, something that the researchers are gearing up to do now.
An honest assessment of my exposure to the extreme life-extension meme.
Since being exposed to the idea of extreme life extension, which admittedly was only several months ago, I’ve found myself reacting in a more skeptical and reactionary manner than I often do when confronted with other radical new futuristic ideas and technologies. When I read about possibilities of faster than light travel, I get excited. Predictions of nano-assemblers make me hopeful. I find designs for colonies on the Moon and Mars fascinating. But when I read about trends in regenerative medicine and nanotechnology that some experts believe will conquer death, I am not enthusiastic. Instead I become very skeptical, nervous and even angry. On one level, I am surprised that I could be anything other than overjoyed that ending death could be a possibility, I very much enjoy life and, as a living organism, I have a strong instinct to stay alive. Yet I find it extremely difficult to wrap my head around the idea of life without death.
So why does extreme life extension make me uncomfortable? I’m not, nor have I ever been a religious person, though I have respect for those who are. I was raised by two atheists with PhDs in science and I haven’t ever held out hope for an afterlife. It’s not that I don’t value human life – I value it very much. As a humanist, I believe very strongly that each human life is sacred and unique and believe it is within our power, and is indeed our responsibility, to work towards giving every person as good a life as possible. I also don’t believe I am a Luddite. I am increasingly excited about technology in general, I love my cellphone and the new snazzier one I will someday get. I love my computer and wonders of the Internet. I’m fascinated by the promise of the Semantic Web. I also embrace any technology that could cure diseases or repair injuries. But when it comes to anything that may fundamentally change the way I am or the way people are in general, I am very hesitant.
I thought it would be interesting to explore some of the reactions, thoughts and feelings I have when pondering extreme life extension, as I think they probably overlap with those of the people who have been or will be exposed to these ideas.
The logic problem: Defying death seems to break down logic
When I think about the end of death, I find it hard to express myself in logical, objective terms. I am tempted to call my reactions
against extreme life extension a “bias” because there is undoubtedly an emotional aspect and I do have a predisposition against the idea. But “bias” implies an illogical perspective – can considering death a certainty really be regarded as illogical? I begin to think, “Hasn’t everything that has ever lived also died?” Well, yes, except of course for the trillions of life forms that are alive right now. So the answer becomes not “Everything that has ever lived has died.” but “Everything that has ever died, has died.” This answer is so logically recursive that it isn’t even that useful.
Genetic manipulation may create whole new industries in the future where we engineer the attributes of our offspring. Is this biological manipulation for the greater good and what role does this play in the argument of public vs private healthcare?
Imagine a world where you earn points on your Visa card that allow you to engineer your new born childs IQ. Earn enough IQ points and you can elevate this child far beyond their natural abilities, all contingent on your ability to spend.
Now proceed five years into the future. You are planning to have a second child and have earned as many points as before. Because technological evolution changes faster than human evolution, your IQ points now buy much more intellectual enhancement than with your first child. Your first born would now become a sort of Windows 95 of children. Do you discard the child? How would your first born and new born interact? With whom do you concentrate your love and care?
Aside from social and psychological issues that would develop with the children, what would this mean to our global economic class structure? Instead of getting ahead through hard work, you now would be barred from progress because the rich and their offspring would be tied to the tenants of accelerating change.
These scenarios have become more plausible in the future since the cracking of the human genome, the equivalent of the moon shot for our recent history. As more and more genes have been discovered, a roadmap for manipulating our existence has arrived.
In adopting this technology how would we insure universal access, equality, and fairness? Furthermore how does this impact the debate over public vs private medicine in the future? Interestingly the concept of genetic manipulation is looked at differently depending on whether the society has a public or private healthcare system. Personal genetic information, and the accessibility of such, also varies in these societies. European countries such as Iceland and others have developed much stronger rules governing the sharing of this information, as well as how it can be used.
In the not too distant future cancer will be eradicated, clean
and powerful new forms of energy will be the norm and people all
across the globe will have access to clean drinking water. While to
some such predictions may sound like narrative straight out of a
utopian sci-fi novel, according to best-selling author and futurist
Uldrich those are realistic possibilities in a world driven by
A global futurist, speaker and proprietor of well respected
consulting firm Nanoveritas, Uldrich advises a
variety of businesses on nanotechnology
developments and, more broadly, how to keep ahead of the curve of a variety of
rapidly advancing technologies. On July 10, 2008, I had the
opportunity to interview Mr. Uldrich and discuss a host of
interesting issues including robots in hospitals, solar panels
mixed into wallpaper and paint, and the potential for low-cost
solar cells to uplift underdeveloped regions around the world. In
the days that followed, Mr. Uldrich announced his bid for the U.S.
Senate which, if successful, would make him the first professional
futurist to hold national office.
Here’s the full text of the audio interview with the man who
could become the next U.S. Senator from the great State of
Minnesota, chock full of wisdom and also some great advice for both
students and lay persons looking to get a leg up on the future:
M: What do you do and how is that related to the
JU: I am a writer and a public speaker and all of my books focus
on the future. Really since my first book on nanotech 5 years ago,
I have broadened out to looking at all emerging technologies and
all of my speaking engagements are around trying to prepare
business and trade organizations to prepare for the future.
In his bold speech calling to transform the energy industry, Al Gore forgot to say one of the most important words of the 21st century – biology. He forgot to mention that if we wanted to ‘grow’ energy, carbon could become a profitable feedstock rather than an economic and environmental liability.
Gore is now calling on America to launch a major Apollo-style program to ‘decarbonize’ the electricity sector by 2018 using renewables, geothermal and carbon sequestration efforts. He imagines a world beyond ‘fossil fuels’, but might be overlooking our greatest potential investment in the energy sector – tapping biological systems that ‘eat’ carbon and ‘grow’ energy resources such as biofuels (for transportation) and hydrogen (for electricity generation).
What is possible by 2018? Within a decade we could transform the role of carbon into a profitable feedstock for clean, abundant energy by tapping the power of biology.
The phrase ‘fossil fuels’ is misleading. Coal and oil are not ancient bones or animal matter, rather they are ancient plant life and microorganisms that locked up hydrogen and carbon molecules using the power of the sun. Coal and oil are bioenergy resources. And rather than extract ancient bioenergy from the ground, we can grow the same hydrocarbon chains ourselves without adding new carbon to the atmosphere. (cont.)
Brain-pacemakers are being used to treat patients suffering from
severe depression and the potentials of the technology are being
expanded on. What happens when brain stimulation is safe and not
only reserved to people suffering from disorders?
“Brain pacemakers” are used to treat people who suffer from
epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, clinical depression and other
diseases. The pacemaker is a medical device that is implanted into
the brain to send electrical signals into the tissue.
For those of you who don’t know what they are the paragraph
above is the first sentence from the wikipedia article and as you
can see the treatment the technology provides is quite vast and
Lets look down the winding road a little bit and consider what a
world it would be like if these pacemakers become easy to implant
and remove self maintaining and powering. A nanobot for
stimulation?! what scientist would dare consider such a thing.
Well i found an article a while back in wired which had this to
Implant Achieves Female Orgasm
One woman undergoing treatment for back pain may have
discovered a cure for the thousands of woman frustrated by the
inability to achieve orgasm. While Dr. Stuart Meloy was putting an
electrode into the woman’s spine in an attempt to ease her chronic
pain, he not only reduced her back pain, but gave her an unexpected
– but delightful – side-effect. (cont.)
“She said, ‘You’re going to have to teach my husband how to
do that’,” Meloy, an anesthesiologist and pain specialist in
Winston-Salem, North Carolina, said. The discovery is published in
Wednesday’s issue of New Scientist.
I speak to a great many student groups and I am often struck by
how few of them appreciate the difference between one million, one
billion and one trillion. (In the name of fairness, the same is
true of many adults). Perhaps, it is because the three figures are all large
numbers that most people don’t think there is an appreciable
difference. Perhaps, it is because the words – million, billion,
and trillion – the rhyme; or maybe it’s just because they’re
dumb—or have had poor teachers. I really don’t know.
One way I have tried to convey the difference between the
numbers is by explaining the figures in a different way. To
One million seconds was 12 days ago; One billion seconds was
roughly 30 years ago; One trillion seconds was approximately 30,000
years ago – 28,000 B.C.!
My point with the analogy is that one trillion of anything is a
really BIG number, and it is much, much
different than one billion. This analogy is important because on
January 17, 2006 the Wellcome Sanger Institute announced it had
archived it’s one billionth DNA sequence. It was an impressive