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Building Microbe Refineries

04/02/2008 6:00 PM Museum
David Berry, '00, PhD '05, Principal, Flagship Ventures

Description: Within the next five years, David Berryprojects, American drivers may be filling their tanks with gas that's not been pumped out of the ground, but synthesized in a laboratory. And Berry means gas _ not ethanol or some other version of the fuel. One of Berry's key venture capital enterprises, LS9, has designed a petroleum molecule "that looks like, tastes like, and is chemically identifiable in every stretch of the imagination to petroleum."

Thanks to the genomics and proteomics revolution, sequences of DNA can be read at lightning fast speeds, and DNA proteins can now be made "to order." Berry sees vast new potential for bioengineering. He jumped ship from academia to the business world, he says, to harness bioengineering tools in the most expeditious way possible, to drive innovation where it's most needed, like in the energy marketplace. "Why spend time making ethanol when we can make something we actually want?" Berry poses.

Biopetroleum, a synthetic molecule based on sugar, is fundamentally more efficient to generate than ethanol, and behaves precisely as the dirty black stuff we derive from the ground. Berry cites loads of advantages in making our own gas, from utilizing the same storage and distribution facilities, to kicking the foreign fossil fuel habit. "Petroleum is renewable over a 100 million"year lifecycle; biopetroleum is renewable over a couple hours _put in some sugar, get it out," says Berry.

While Berry's enterprise may indeed yield "a molecule that matters more than ethanol," it does not help reduce atmospheric CO2 in the short term. "We're only trying to solve one problem at a time," he says. There are plenty of risks and challenges to large"scale production, Berry acknowledges in response to audience questions. He describes measures scientists are discussing to avoid the misappropriation of this synthetic molecule (or other bioengineered products) for malevolent purposes. He admits to some concerns about a steady supply of reasonably priced sugar ("We check the price of corn every day"); and acknowledges obstacles in building giant plants in the U.S. for processing the petroleum. Nevertheless, Berry sees enormous opportunities in the energy market for his project in the not"distant future. When asked if Exxon is worried about his work, Berry responds, "I hope so."

About the Speaker(s): David Berry joined Flagship in 2005 while completing his M.D. from Harvard Medical School. Berry was previously awarded a Ph.D. through the MIT Biological Engineering Division, where he studied the biological effects of complex sugars with advisors Ram Sasisekharan and Robert Langer. Berry also did his undergraduate work at MIT, with a degree in brain and cognitive sciences. He was named as a member of the MIT Corporation " its Board of Trustees " in 2006.

Berry's work has led to 11 peer"reviewed publications, over 20 patents and applications, as well as more than 25 awards and honors including the prestigious Lemelson"MIT Student Prize in 2005 for for inventing a new protein to treat stroke patients. Berry was also named as the Innovator of the Year by Technology Review in its 2007 TR35 list of world's top 35 innovators under the age of 35. Berry is also looking into new ways to use sugar biology and bacteria to develop hydrogen gas inexpensively.

Host(s): Office of the Provost, MIT Museum

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MIT World — special events and lectures

MIT World — special events and lectures

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