Genomic Science Program
U.S. Department of Energy | Office of Science | Biological and Environmental Research Program

Remarks by Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham

See related press release.

November 13, 2003

Researchers Funded by the DOE “Genomes to Life” Program Achieve Important Advance in Developing Biological Strategies to Produce Hydrogen, Sequester Carbon Dioxide and Clean up the Environment

Remarks: Forrestal Auditorium, Washington, D.C.

Good morning.

Let me begin by welcoming Dr. Craig Venter, who is, I am sure, familiar to everyone here today … and Dr. Hamilton Smith, a Nobel Prize winner and Dr. Venter’s collaborator on the project we are going to discuss here today.

Let me also welcome their colleagues from the Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives, to the Department of Energy. I had the chance to visit your lab earlier this year, so I am please to be able to host you this morning.

We are also joined by Undersecretary Bob Card, and the Director of the Office of Science, Ray Orbach.

Thank you all for joining us.

Just three days ago, at the National Press Club, I announced the Department’s 20-year roadmap for future science facilities … facilities that will ensure American primacy in science and technology well into the 21st Century.

Taken together, this prioritized list of 28 facilities and upgrades, will lead to more world-class science, greater technological innovation, and advance American competitiveness.

This is our blueprint for DOE science … and to a large extent it is a blueprint for American science, as well.

And a significant piece of our scientific tradition here at the Department concerns advancing the frontiers of biological science. Our facilities plan will do that, as will the work by Craig Venter and his team that we are here today to discuss.

I am pleased to announce an extraordinarily exciting development that is a direct outgrowth of a successful effort that began 17 years ago when the Department of Energy decided to map the human genome.

As a result of years of scientific research by many dedicated individuals, scientists today possess the entire DNA sequences, or genomes, for life forms ranging from human beings to the most basic single-celled microbes.

Armed with this knowledge, scientists at the Department of Energy believed that it would be possible to alter microbes, by changing their genomes, and create organisms with the biological abilities to produce hydrogen, accelerate environmental clean up, and mitigate the long-term impacts of climate change through sequestering carbon dioxide.

So just over a year ago, the Department of Energy’s Office of Science partnered with Dr. Craig Venter, a leader in the effort to map the human genome, and awarded the Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives a three-year, $3 million grant to reconstruct a bacterial genome from commercially available DNA strands.

Because this pilot effort showed such promise so quickly, I traveled to Rockville, Maryland last April to tour Dr. Venter’s facilities and announce an additional $9 million grant for research to understand microbial communities better and to develop new, biological methods to capture carbon dioxide and produce hydrogen.

The success of this research thus far has been nothing short of amazing.

And today we are here to announce a critical accomplishment along this groundbreaking research journey.

Dr. Venter and his team from the Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives have successfully created a phage, a harmless microscopic life form that infects bacteria, by stitching together commercially available genetic materials … approximately 6,000 DNA bases in size.

This is a remarkable achievement for two reasons: First, unlike the vast majority of genomic research which starts with an existing organism and tweaks it to become more useful, Dr. Venter created this phage from scratch. Second, he and his team did this with almost perfect accuracy … in just a few days… instead of the months previously required.

Although he has produced a phage and not our ultimate goal, a microbe that is 100 to 1,000 times larger, this tremendous accomplishment brings us closer to our goal of developing those microbes that can be used to address vital Energy Department missions.

While we are not at the end of this research journey, this is a remarkable achievement.

So just imagine, in the not-too-distant future, a colony of specially designed microbes living within the emission-control systems of a coal-fired power plant, consuming its pollution … and its carbon dioxide … makes fossil fuels as clean an energy source as hydropower.

Or consider the possibility of employing microbes to radically reduce polluted waters or to reduce the toxic effects of radioactive waste.

Let me give you one simple example illustrating that these dreams are not scientific fantasy.

Our researchers have mapped the genome of a strange microbe, or bug, that can live quite happily in an environment with one million times the radiation a human cell could tolerate.

It’s been affectionately nicknamed “Conan the Bacterium” by the press.

Now that we have sequenced this bug, we are ready to turn it to our own uses.

Our scientists have already shown that it is possible, using the work being pioneered by the Department of Energy and Dr. Venter, to combine Conan’s radiation resistance properties with the capabilities of other microbes. The result is a new radiation-resistant microbe that can eat organic solvents like those found at many contaminated Energy Department sites. We have had great successes with Conan in the laboratory thus far, and are developing a far better understanding of how that little bug can be resistant to so much radiation—an asset that may prove valuable for a whole range of uses.

Biological tools like this can also be developed for nuclear waste clean-up – creating a powerful tool that can deliver huge savings in time and money.

We can make specialized microscopic bugs that eat carbon dioxide, others that can get trees to grow in barren soil and hostile climates, and create hydrogen for tomorrow’s fuel cell vehicles.

The benefits of our microbial research are very real.

And as we push the frontiers of scientific discovery, we are looking at all the benefits that will flow from this research, including those that extend far beyond Department of Energy missions.

For example, this research can yield important benefits:

* in medicine, by enabling the development of better vaccines and safer strategies for gene therapy;
* in agriculture, through improved crop yields, better disease resistance, and improved strategies for combating agricultural diseases;
* and even in homeland security, by providing an enhanced ability to detect and defeat potential biothreat agents.

The potential for this research to revolutionize our future is enormous.

Human beings have always been explorers – always striving to discover new things and investigate new frontiers to expand our horizons and improve our lives.

It’s been that way for all of human history – from the very earliest days of developing tools and harnessing the properties of fire, up until today, as sophisticated technologies allow us to peer outward to the cosmos or inward to unlock the mysteries of the atom and the tiniest, most fundamental building blocks of life itself.

This microbial research – looking at the most basic molecular-level process of nature — offers tremendous promise for a safer, stronger, healthier and more secure world.

In fact, I am so optimistic about the success of our mission, and the benefits that will flow from it, that I am creating a special subcommittee of the Energy Department’s Biological and Environmental Research Advisory Committee to recommend ways and accelerate this research and identify the full range of potential benefits, not only in our energy missions, but in other areas of vital importance to all mankind.

This committee will be composed of the best minds in the field. I have appointed Dr. Ray Gesteland, Vice President for Research and Professor of Genetics at the University of Utah, to chair this committee and I have ask him report to me with their recommendations by March 12, 2004.

I look forward to their findings.

The Department of Energy launched our Genomes to Life program in July 2002 to develop new knowledge about how microorganisms can benefit all of us in ways that go beyond medical applications.

The success of that program exceeded our wildest expectations.

Today, we are continuing that journey of discovery as we explore opportunities to apply the fruits of the human genome program to a vast array of new purposes.

The research results we celebrate today stand on the shoulders of discoveries achieved precisely because the Department of Energy was willing to take the risk and begin a program in gene sequencing nearly two decades ago.

We are proud of that tradition and legacy.

We believe that our current Genomes to Life research investments offer enormous promise for meeting the energy and security challenges of this nation.

Thank you. It is now my pleasure to introduce Dr. Craig Venter.

After his remarks, Dr. Venter and I will be glad to stay for a few minutes and answer questions.

Press Release R-03-265