Next we move into a large, open room where a small group of scientists is working with flasks that contain modified microbes and sugar.They stir the contents and wait until greasy droplets of fuel float to the surface."When you grow microbes for the production of pharmaceuticals that are high-cost, you can baby them," says Kinkead Reiling, another co-founder. It's a different world." From Pharma to Fuel Amyris began in 2001, when Newman, Renninger and Reiling were postdocs together in Keasling's Berkeley lab. with Keasling, was focused on bioremediation—using microorganisms to clean up the environment.At the time, Newman was working in the lab on biosensors, devices that detect the presence of specific molecules. In the evenings, Renninger, Newman and Reiling would go over to Keasling's house to brainstorm start-up ideas.(Also present was another postdoc named Vince Martin, whom Renninger calls "the fifth Beatle.") "We'd bring a bottle of wine apiece and order some bad pizza or Chinese food and drink a fair load," Renninger says.Over the course of an evening, "the productivity of those meetings went up and up and then slammed to the ground." At first, the group considered using algae to make biodiesel. I'm watching this image on a computer screen at Amyris Biotechnologies in Emeryville, California, where one of the founders, biologist Jack Newman, is giving me a tour.
As I stand over the shoulder of a biologist named Lance Kizer, he points to his screen and shows me which genes in each bug are switched on, and to what extent.It could be an aerial photo of an oil spill: liquid spheres pooling, oozing, dwarfing a bedraggled landscape. And what's happening is exactly the opposite of what it seems. The genetically manipulated before me are highly crafted units of industrial production, which Amyris is using to turn sugar into novel versions of gasoline, jet fuel and diesel—in other words, the fuels on which the world already runs. Because as it stands, the main alternative to petroleum, ethanol (a type of alcohol), is fraught with problems.I half expect to zoom in on poisoned seal pups or waterbirds dragging their oil-soaked feathers. Amyris is one of a handful of young biofuel companies putting a brilliant and weird twist on the future of green. It can't be pumped through current infrastructure because it tends to corrode pipelines.They turn a common microbe into a miniature gas pump. But scaling up these experiments into a partial replacement for the 20 million barrels of oil the U. On this afternoon in late November, amid the gene sequencers, microarrays, microscopes, flasks, pipettes and humming refrigerators, rows of miniature pumpkins decorated with smiley faces sit atop tables.Lab coats are embroidered with nicknames like "Soybean" and "Wild Type." Newman points out that Amyris is almost like a university lab but not quite—"everyone's too happy." As one might expect from a startup, whose entire net worth is pretty much based on its intellectual property, the Amyris guys won't go into detail about their technical manipulations.