At the beginning of 2007, at a conference in La Jolla, Calif., dedicated to biotechnology and biofuels, I was privileged to hear a banquet address by C. Craig Venter, the biotechnologist who cracked the human genome, beating the U.S. government. He made, I felt, a highly schizoid impression: on the one hand, charismatic, all-encompassing, omniscient; on the other . . . megalomaniacal mad scientist.
Perhaps ExxonMobil executives have been mulling over similar impressions, as they contemplate the potential of biofuels and biotechnology. But this week, as the fortieth anniversary of the moon landing approaches, the company announced it is partnering with Venter’s Synthetic Genomics to develop liquid fuels from bioengineered algae. The $600 million that ExxonMobil is investing may be but a pittance for a company that earned $45 billion last year, but if Venter turns out to be of sound mind and delivers on his promises, this may someday be seen as another huge leap for humankind.