Friday, January 25, 2008
Building a synthetic genome means that a lab would know which basic set of genes, "housekeeping genes," are needed to support life and would then be able to insert one or two genes needed, say, to produce ethanol, or butanol, or hydrocarbons. What you would have created is a bacteria cell with a genome created in a lab with the sole purpose being to live and produce the desired product. This is the kind of research going on at J. Craig Venter's lab, Synthetic Genomics.
The announcement today was the discovery that they had successfully built a very small synthetic genome, (582,970 'base pairs' or pieces of DNA), and were able to place the genome into the bacteria that the synthetic genome was modeled after, mycoplasma genitalia. Although this is a great step forward and a huge jump in the number of base pairs connected synthetically, by comparing it to the number of base pairs in the human genome, (3.1 billion representing approximately 50,000 genes), it's easy to see that they are nowhere near having the capability to produce extensive genomes. This might not be a problem if they are only trying to make a synthetic genome with the fewest number of required genes (which is currently unknown so the exact size would be hard to guess at). Also, they inserted the synthetic genome into a bacteria they modeled the DNA off of, AND the bacteria still had its original genome. Let me repeat that, they do not know how to remove the original DNA, replace it with the synthetic genome, and then get the bacteria to 'reboot' with the new DNA. They are only able to get the host to live with its old genome and then function with the new synthetic DNA.
So what impact is this science having right now? Well, they are making definitive progress towards their goal; a goal that could potentially have industry altering effects from biofuels to medicine production to understanding the essential components of our DNA in a more extensive way. Right now, the breakthrough is still on the horizon, but it has definite potential for ethanol production and the goal may be closer than we think.
Article in the Chicago Tribune on Venter's announcement:
Website for Synthetic Genomics:
Wednesday, January 23, 2008
First of all, let's get the facts straight. Ethanol demand has increased considerably in the United States leading to increased demand for corn and a subsequent competition for acreage, which has driven up prices for commodities such as corn and soybeans. This strong uptick in ag. products is what Schumer and other critics of ethanol hold as the reason for surging grocery prices. If this correlation is true then we should see a large price increase in the consumer price index CPI over the last few years relative to the prior string of years in which corn and soybean prices were relatively low. The USDA, through their Economic Research Service, found the CPI increased 2.6% between 1996 and 2005, and then only 2.3% in the year 2006. They went even further to record that the CPI for meat products in 2006 only increased by 1%, which would refute any claims that the CPI isn't responsive to corn based products. Iowa State University study these trends and found that a 30% increase in the price of corn would only have a 1% increase in grocery prices.
Experts offer that energy prices for transportation (such as oil and gasoline) along with increasing labor costs constitute a much larger piece of why milk, eggs, and other food staples have increased.
But the above response is only one half of why Chuck Schumer is not only wrong in this case, but proven his naivety in this debate. The other half is the debate about whether or not to have a tariff on imported ethanol. I feel that people don't realize that the main reason the tariff exists isn't for protectionist measures, it is to prevent the Caribbean countries and Brazil from gaining taxpayer benefits that the ethanol industry currently enjoys. What I'm referring to is the 51 cents per gallon blending credit the government pays to blenders in order to establish a market for ethanol in gasoline. The tariff is set at 54 cents per gallon and is used to prevent other countries from exploiting the 51 cents per gallon taxpayer credit that they would otherwise enjoy. What Schumer needs to do first is debate the merits of a 51 cents per gallon tax credit -- to which I see the benefits both of having it available and of doing away with it. However, as long as the credit exists, we need an import tariff to prevent Brazilian and Caribbean nations from exploiting our tax dollars with the 51 cents credit.
Finally, I can't resist using a great analysis refuting the food versus fuel arguement from American Fuels (http://americanfuels.blogspot.com/search?updated-max=2008-01-19T17%3A51%3A00-05%3A00&max-results=7). The analysis shows that the amount of corn produced, subtracted by the amount of corn used for ethanol, has actually increased since 2005 -- from 9.6 billion bushels up to 10.5 billion bushels. This would seem to negate the argument that some kind of severe shortage of corn has put positive pressure on other industries.
One thing for sure is that politicians definitely make the decisions in this country, but that doesn't always mean that they have the best facts or present the pertinent arguments. Schumer would be doing his state and country a disservice if he follows knee-jerk reactions against ethanol just to assuage fears about rising milk prices.
Original article refuting Sen. Schumer's remarks:
USDA analysis of trends between ethanol and CPI:
Tuesday, January 22, 2008
Original interview with Peter Suurbeir can be found at:
Monday, January 21, 2008
What this means for the ethanol industry is that a major energy requirement to produce ethanol is now in greater abundance and will hopefully be available for a cheaper price. Natural gas prices are currently $15.1 per thousand cubic feet, up 61% from the same time 4 years ago. Since the use of natural gas in the production of ethanol, (used in the distillation process and in drying the DDGS), can account for approximately 2/3rds of the total energy and a large part of the cost to produce ethanol is used to purchase natural gas, it would be great news to the ethanol industry if gas prices could recede. To put things into perspective, it is estimated the 16% of the natural gas used by the state of Iowa is used by our ethanol plants. Although scientists are working hard to displace the need to use natural gas, and some ethanol plants have been built to work using coal instead of natural gas, coal power has notoriously negated much of the greenhouse gas emission benefits realized using ethanol and new technologies to displace the use of natural gas have not yet matured. Until that time comes, ethanol plants will rely on natural gas and moderating prices could have a large beneficial affect on the industry, especially in these times of tight economics.
Below is a picture of the Marcellus Shale, where the new natural gas field was found, from the United States Geological Survey USGS. The Highlighted area is the entire Appalatian area of interest to natural gas production, while the Marcellus Shale encapsulates the lower New York and upper Pennsylvania areas.
Original article from Penn State University:
Source used for establishing natural gas prices:
Sunday, January 20, 2008
Iowans want the steady and sustained growth of the family farm without the encroachment of commercial agriculture into our state. Hopefully this recent round of excitement in the industry will give the chance for this dream to be passed on to one more generation, and allow Iowa to be filled with "fields of opportunity."
I encourage those that are interested to read the article and interview with Bill Northey in the Des Moines Register. He has several good points including the renewed effort that Iowa must undertake in order to ensure that conservation efforts are not lost in this new era of excitement in farming.
A beautiful seen of the Iowa countryside with same corn fields in the fore-ground.