And so Amyris has altered nature to carry out fermentation with a twist.
Researchers at Amyris perform hundreds of experiments like this every day.
Finally, we reach the "brewery," a room with exposed copper piping, several steel fermenters and a large vat towering on one side.
It could be an aerial photo of an oil spill: liquid spheres pooling, oozing, dwarfing a bedraggled landscape. And what's happening is exactly the opposite of what it seems. The genetically manipulated before me are highly crafted units of industrial production, which Amyris is using to turn sugar into novel versions of gasoline, jet fuel and diesel—in other words, the fuels on which the world already runs. Because as it stands, the main alternative to petroleum, ethanol (a type of alcohol), is fraught with problems.
I half expect to zoom in on poisoned seal pups or waterbirds dragging their oil-soaked feathers. Amyris is one of a handful of young biofuel companies putting a brilliant and weird twist on the future of green. It can't be pumped through current infrastructure because it tends to corrode pipelines.
"When you grow microbes for the production of pharmaceuticals that are high-cost, you can baby them," says Kinkead Reiling, another co-founder. It's a different world." From Pharma to Fuel Amyris began in 2001, when Newman, Renninger and Reiling were postdocs together in Keasling's Berkeley lab. with Keasling, was focused on bioremediation—using microorganisms to clean up the environment.
At the time, Newman was working in the lab on biosensors, devices that detect the presence of specific molecules. In the evenings, Renninger, Newman and Reiling would go over to Keasling's house to brainstorm start-up ideas.
Cellulosic ethanol—fuel produced from the cellulosic matter contained in plant stalks and stems rather than from seeds—would solve that problem, but the technology to produce it on a large scale is still a way off.
Plus, ethanol simply isn't as energy dense as petroleum-based fuels.
To make fuel efficiently, you need a microbe that will eagerly convert sugar into the chemicals you want, but that won't produce unwanted by-products and toxins that could build up and kill the cell.