GM research dominates BP-Berkeley tie-up / Big "No!" to biofuel targets (6/3/2007)

1.GMO Research Dominates BP-UC Partnership
2.Hundreds of NGOs and thousands of individuals call on the EU Leaders Summit to say NO to biofuel targets
3.Letter to Heads of State on biofuel targets

1.News Analysis: GMO Research Dominates BP-UC Partnership
By Richard Brenneman The Berkeley Daily Planet, 6 March 2006

Critics of the proposed agreement between UC Berkeley and BP - the rebranded British Petroleum - should take their best shots now, because once the deal is signed not only Big Oil, but Big Academy and Big Government Lab will mobilize their own PR folks to fire back.

Should a final contract be signed as UC Berkeley proposes, the collective public relations efforts of academia and the corporation will be formally obligated to uphold the project as the world's leading research in alternative energy, implicitly holding up biofuels as the preeminent solution to world energy woes.

What's more, venture capital firms have promised to marshal their lobbying efforts to catch the ears of hesitant legislators and other government leaders.

All these efforts will target would-be critics of a project that proposes nothing less than to re-engineer living plant cells to toil away as microfactories, delivering the raw materials to other living cells toiling away to turn plantstuff into fuel to keep cars and trucks on the road.

These facts - and many more - emerge from a close reading of the 93-page submission, a copy of which was obtained by the Daily Planet, which was used by UC Berkeley, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) and the University of Illinois at Champagne-Urbana (UI) to win the promise of a half-billion dollars from the global oil giant,

One commonly understood phrase is missing though omnipresent throughout the first 56 pages of the document and appears only in the final and shortest item in the research program - and then only as a warning that "This research will profit from paying significant attention to the evolving regulatory and societal response to genetically modified organisms at the domestic and international level."

Genetically modified organisms - or GMOs - have provoked political firestorms, and bans in Europe and protests and suicides by Indian farmers have heightened the controversy around their creation and use.

But, as the document makes clear on page 56, "Synthetic biology is a core function with the EBI," with "synthetic biology" being the reframed and university-and-BP-preferred alternative name to GMO.

"Synthetic biology is the design and construction of new biological entities - such as enzyme, genetic circuits and cells - or the redesign of existing biological systems," states the proposal.

Still to be finalized is a basic legal document for the project, which is to be negotiated between and signed by UC Berkeley and BP, with the University of Illinois and LBNL serving as subcontractors to Cal.

BP itself would create a proprietary subsidiary to conduct its own research in separate quarters in the same building.

Designer genes

While some gene-engineered microbes are eating GMO plantstuff and excreting ethanol and other fuels, other microscopic forms of "synthetic biology" could be slaving away deep beneath the earth’s surface, chomping down on hard-to-reach oil and rendering it easier to extract or digesting coal into cleaner forms of liquid fuel.

But most of the emphasis is on biomass - chopped up bits of cropped plants - as the likely source of the energy-creation efforts of the Energy Biosciences Institute, or EBI.

The proposal lists three potential sources of biomass to be used for fuels in addition to corn: fast-growing poplar trees, switchgrass and miscanthus - with the emphasis on the last, a tall, hardy perennial already being used in European pilot programs.

Experiments will focus on developing GMO strains tweaked to overcome biological factors that make it hard for microorganisms to digest.

Tasked with creating the new plants are the Biomass Engineering, Lignin, Feedstocks and Breeding laboratories. The Feedstock Pretreatment, Enzyme Discovery, Enzyme Evolution and Engineering and Biofuels Chemistry laboratories will explore processing the plants, and the Laboratory for Integrated Bioprocessing will focus on treating a single organism that would both produce enzymes to break down biomass and convert the resulting compounds to fuels.

The Pathway Engineering Lab, aided by the Host Engineering Laboratory, will identify the genes that produce critical enzymes and develop organisms that thrive in harsh industrial conditions in the presence of compounds that might otherwise destroy the microbes in their naturally occurring forms.

Several more labs will focus on enzymes.

The Microbial Enhanced Oil Recovery and Fossil Fuel Bioprocessing labs will concentrate on petroleum and coal, respectively, while the Biological Carbon Sequestration lab will seeks ways to trap more carbon and keep it from the atmosphere.

Another lab will focus on harvesting, transport and storage.

The remaining labs will focus on marketing, social and environmental implications, and developing tools to implement, evaluate and regulate the emerging GMO-derived fuel industry.

Construction sites

The proposal sites the main offices and labs in a purpose-built facility at LBNL. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has pledged $40 million in state funds for the structure, and the university has lined up $15 million in private contributions and $30 million in state lease revenue bonds, based on revenues anticipated from BP.

The structure, envisioned as a three-story building, will be located next to a planned new parking lot with 150 spaces - the same number as the anticipated number of staff positions.

Initially, the program would operate in two existing structures, Hildebrand Hall, a research building, and the Calvin Laboratory, a structure scheduled for demolition to make way for a new office and meeting complex joining the university’s law and business schools.

Initial plans call for a three-story building at LBNL with special containment labs designed to prevent releas

Go to a Print friendly Page

Email this Article to a Friend

Back to the Archive