DOE publishes roadmap for new biological research for energy and environmental needs

10/03/05

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The Department of Energy (DOE) today issued a comprehensive plan for a new generation of biology research that builds on genome project investments to help solve national energy and environmental challenges. Microbial enzymes could, for example, be used to improve the manufacture of ethanol from cellulose by replacing the inefficient and expensive processes used today. They could enable smaller-scale and more cost-effective and energy-efficient distributed processing plants that could make ethanol cost competitive with oil-based gasoline. Thousands of microbial species have biochemical processes that are of potential use for this and other applications.

The Genomics: GTL Roadmap: Systems Biology for Energy and Environment outlines a plan to explore the unseen world of microbes--starting with information encoded in their DNA sequences--to produce the new science needed for achieving cleaner and more secure energy resources, remediating toxic wastes and understanding the natural roles microbes play in the global climate.

"Much as the Human Genome Project stimulated the growth of a biomedical biotechnology industry, the research laid out in this roadmap will spur growth in a new industrial biotechnology sector," Secretary of Energy Samuel W. Bodman said. "Microbes can be used for processes and products that can serve as an engine for economic competitiveness in the 21st century."

The roadmap traces the path from national energy and environmental needs to the scientific progress that should be pursued with the benefit of emerging technologies, integrated computing and a new research infrastructure. The new plan was formulated over the last three years with the expertise of nearly 800 scientists and technology experts and is now being reviewed and refined at the National Academy of Sciences.

Microbial discoveries are changing scientists' view of the origins, limits and capabilities of life. As a result of their broad genetic and biochemical diversity, microbes have developed the means to thrive in almost every environment on earth, including those with extremes of temperature, chemistry and pressure. Most of the time microbes work together in complex natural communities. These natural communities have evolved complementary biochemistries that are far more sophisticated -- highly selective, energy efficient and less polluting -- than any chemical processes currently used by industry and that offer many practical applications.

To harness and use microbial processes however, they must be understood in far greater detail and in the context of living systems. GTL's goal is to understand how the static information in the DNA of microbial genomes drives the integrated, intricate and dynamic processes of life. To achieve this level of understanding requires moving beyond explorations of single genes and proteins to a systems-wide approach. These studies demand explorations of microbes at the molecular, whole cell and community levels.

New instruments and advanced computational methods will be required for this research. Genome sequences can furnish the blueprints, advanced technologies can produce the data and computing can relate enormous data sets to models linking genome sequence to biological processes and function and move researchers closer to practical applications.

The GTL research program has three phases. In the first phase, key proof of principle experiments on complex energy and environmental systems will be performed and new technologies and computing techniques will be developed, used for science and scaled up in user research facilities. In the second phase, the high throughput tools and capabilities will be applied to rapidly understanding biological processes, developing concepts for industrial application to energy and environmental problems and to understand the interactions between global biological processes and climate. In the third and final phase, this knowledge and these capabilities will position GTL to rapidly transform new science into revolutionary new processes and products to help meet critical national energy and environmental needs.

The technical challenges presented by GTL analyses and the scale of the systems that must be understood -- from genomes to ecosystems -- exceed current capabilities. To meet these analytical needs, DOE has proposed four large research and production facilities for rapidly unraveling the tremendous complexity of biological systems. These world-class resources would be available to the broader research community as well as industry and would dramatically increase the pace of discovery. Such advances will enable rapid translation of science into new technologies, ultimately shortening the path to national benefits. The GTL facilities are among those featured in the DOE Office of Science's 20-year facilities plan (Facilities for the Future of Science: A Twenty-Year Outlook, 2003).

The 2005 GTL Roadmap builds on and expands the GTL research program begun in 2002. Scientific and technological progress achieved during the Human Genome Project, initiated in 1986 by DOE, and the Microbial Genome Program, begun in 1994, provided the foundation for establishing the GTL program. The roadmap may be viewed at www.sc.doe.gov. For more information on the GTL program visit: www.DOEGenomesToLife.org

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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