Former director of US human genome project turns his focus to alternative fuel production

From decoding the human genome he went on to using the DNA of plants and bacteria to produce cheap, environmentally friendly energy. Aris Patrinos, the Greek who successfully coordinated the massive scientific project of decoding the human genome, spoke to Kathimerini about his career shift and his new activities in the production of biofuels. It is a technology expected to bring about an energy revolution in the next few years. A few months ago, Patrinos left his post as director of the US Department of Energy’s Human Genome Program to become president of Synthetic Genomics (a company founded by Craig Venter, a major participant in the US Human Genome Project) and decided to become active in Greece as well. Is the development of new forms of energy dictated by what many say is the imminent end of oil reserves? I don’t think that we will stop using oil even though geopolitical needs show that we must move on. There are other more serious reasons why we should focus on new forms of energy. Governments must realize that we have reached the bottom when it comes to the major problem of climate change caused by environmental pollution and the greenhouse effect. In the past we thought that climate change would happen slowly so that man and nature would find a way to deal with the phenomenon. Now, however, the research, which I am familiar with from the position I held, shows that these changes are non-linear, which means they are sudden and rapid. At the US Department of Energy I not only dealt with genome issues but also with the funds for research into the environment and the dangers that threaten it. We were the first energy ministry in the world which, as early as 1970, undertook research into the greenhouse effect, at a time when the term was known to just a handful of scientists. It sounds strange that a plant or bacterium can produce fuel. A certain proportion of energy can be produced in the future from bacteria. For the moment, we are concentrating our efforts on transforming plant components into fuel, as we keep finding new ways of managing the process of photosynthesis to produce cheap energy. It sounds strange, but it is absolutely feasible to use the extraordinary energy that we have discovered in the microbiological world to transform plant substances such as cellulose into ethanol. If we manage to turn cellulose into sugar and then into alcohol in 5-10 years, we will have had considerable success. Personally, I’m certain that we will succeed. How close are we to producing and using biofuels? We are still at the beginning and we have a long way to go, chiefly due to addiction to oil. Oil is like a drug; it isn’t easy for the world to kick the habit. What do you recall from the time when you directed the human genome program? How did you manage to persuade scores of scientists from all over the world to collaborate, given that there was a lot of disagreement and even animosity among them? It was really very difficult to coordinate hundreds of scientists, but in the end everything can be done. In the discussions I had with the scientists I focused on the significance of the endeavor in order to persuade the ones who were very self-centered. And my mild personality probably helped them set aside their personal rivalries to work for a common cause.