Genomics could be employed to develop better tools that, in turn, provide the kind of breakthroughs necessary to make the production of biofuels a viable alternative to fossil fuels.
Before we get to that, let’s look at the past and review the energy landscape.
Hundreds of millions of years ago plants, insects and animals combined the sun’s energy with carbon dioxide (CO2) and stored it within their bodies. Natural forces and movements of the earth’s crust baked these biological materials at high pressure, over millions of years, deep underground into the natural resources we use today called fossil fuels (oil, natural gas and coal).
The world has historically built its energy needs around fossil fuels. Heralded as a reliable, relatively inexpensive and abundant energy sources, they have been at the core of the modern industrial economy for as long as most of us can remember. But they are also a large contributor to the greenhouse gases (GHG) that cause global warming and scientists have been raising the alarm for decades. The widespread impacts of climate change are compounding risks to the economy, communities and health resulting in higher costs for things like health care, raw materials, food and public services for Canadians.
The climate change debate continues, yet despite which side of the argument you’re on, the need to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels remains very real. As a non-renewable resource with limited reserves, big oil closely monitors production closely in anticipation of its peak. When exactly the peak production of oil will be reached is something that even industry experts can’t decide, but when it happens, it will have a profound global economic impact unless alternative energy sources are readily available. In the meantime, relying on the forces of supply and demand to limit greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is like relying heavily on hope.
While the uptake of alternative energy sources (e.g. wind, solar, biofuels etc.) have made modest gains as these technologies improve, fossil fuels continue to dominate energy consumption and will continue for many years to come unless more effective and efficient technologies can be identified. The alternatives available today are simply not cost effective in their current supply without government subsidies, use tremendous amounts of land, or are harmful to the environment.
The idea that a single renewable energy source is going to replace fossil fuels is not realistic. A variety of alternatives are needed to meet the energy demand fulfilled by fossil fuels. For example, solar and wind are both renewable clean energy sources for electricity; they are currently not viable alternatives to power things like airplanes or heavy machinery. Liquid biofuels produced with renewable organic material (plants, bacteria) are more direct substitutes for fossil fuels in these applications, at least until storage systems (batteries) improve.
Biofuels also have the potential to reduce some less desirable aspects of fossil fuel production and use. This includes conventional and GHG pollutant emissions, exhaustible resource depletion and dependence on unstable foreign suppliers. Biofuels are easy to source, and can provide economic security to countries that produce them. On the flip side, biofuels have disadvantages. For example, they cost more to produce than fossil fuels, the use of fertilizers and excess water have environmental impact, they take up finite land resources at the expense of food production and at the end of the day, their use may not guarantee carbon emission cuts.
But not all biofuels are created equal (see Fig 1). Where corn based ethanol proved to be a disappointment, algae based biodiesel technologies in development offer hope. Algae may have some advantages over crops, such as corn or soy and require much fewer land reserves, but there are still hurdles to overcome before they can compete economically as a viable alternative to oil. Recognizing this, the U.S. Department of Energy recently awarded $8M USD to support work aimed at reducing the costs of producing algal biofuels.
The above chart was created jointly by faculty members from University of Washington and The Nature Conservancy and originally published in the Seattle P-I
This is where genomics has an opportunity to play a significant role. For example, genomics can help us to grow more effective strains of algae. Genomics could provide a better understanding of the microbes that help break down the organic materials that are converted into fuel. The science could identify or engineer the bugs that are capable of working in extreme conditions to create more product with less input or less waste.
Genomics is opening doors that were previously closed. Sequencing costs are decreasing, new tools allow for real-time monitoring and other tools such as CRISPR for gene editing offer opportunities to manipulate how genes work. Despite these advancements, the need to develop better tools is ongoing. It may take hundreds of incremental innovations that add up to a breakthrough solution that will help biofuels be economically competitive with oil and gas. Better tools make things easier and faster, and in doing so help make products cheaper and more competitive.
In addition to lower costs, advancements in genomic tools can be systemic, which brings untold benefits to healthcare, environmental science, agriculture and our capacity to respond to climate change. Each tool we add to the genomic tool box, can be applied to every discipline that works with living organisms — bacteria, fungi, plants, animals and humans. A step forward in one application can be applied to the rest because all living things are based on the same language — DNA.
Advancement in genomic tools also brings advancements in our understanding of the bugs that make biofuels, which increases our capacity to harness Mother Nature’s process of turning the suns energy into a liquid fuel. Rather than waiting millions of years and drilling deep within the earth’s crust, we will grow or convert fuel in a matter of weeks utilizing free solar energy and CO2.
Genomics could help unlock the production efficiencies, discover new bugs and further our understanding of how these tiny refineries can create the biofuels we need — we know it’s possible and we won’t have to wait millions of years.