Sunday, June 3, 2007

Young Scientists Tackle Worlds Biggest Issues: First Malaria, Second Fossil Fuels

Amyris Biotechnologies has developed an inexpensive cure for malaria, set to be released in 2008. Their next mission is to use the same technology to solve the world's energy problems.
The company technology results from years of research by Jay Keasling, a Professor of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering at UC Berkeley. During Keasling's position as Director of the Physical Biosciences Division of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, he has made great discoveries for the world of biosynthetics through his research with E. Coli.
Keasling, along with three graduates from Berkeley, founded the Amyris in 2003, and were quickly awarded grants by the Bill Gates Foundation for their work with genetically modified E. coli that will cure malaria.
The way it works, to put it simply, is that they've engineered the bacteria to produce artemisin, a plant drug occuring naturally in Artemesia. The price tag for the natural drug is $2.40 US, a price far too high for those suffering in third-world countries. According to the World Health Organization, malaria infects somewhere between 300 million to 500 million people every year. Africa and Asia are hit the hardest, with 1.5 million deaths, and most of those are children. This new, genetically modified drug will cost $.25, and is set to be available world wide as soon as 2008.
So what's next for Amryis? They've just received another grant from the Gates Foundation, this time their goal is to tackle biofuels. They're looking at how fuels are designed from nature, and will attempt to ferment sugars into fuel.
Today's biofuels just aren't scaleable for a global market. They currently require too much energy up front, and are limited by the organic raw material. The company is looking to developing a process by which a wide variety of plant sources can be used. Other constraints will be a fuel that can be readily used in automobiles, diesel and jet engines. The company has the additional goal of producing a fuel that is insoluble in water so that current pipeline infrastructure will need no retrofitting.
Technology like this could be the key to creating a fuel that we no longer need to wage war for, while ensuring our agricultural lands are preserved for future generations.

for article in New York Times

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