A fascinating first presentation from Steve Chu, who runs Lawrence Berkeley Lab, one of the sponsors of this event, on the challenge of finding technologies for clean energy production and the possibilities that various synthetic-biology technologies offer for meeting that challenge. There was lots of talk of artificial photosynthesis, and some wonderfully far out ideas, such as redesigning plants so that their carbon-dioxide intakes and water outputs are separated, rather than being combined in the magnificently subtle mechanisms of the stomata. I suspect that this is not in fact practical or desirable, but maybe I've been hanging out too long with the plant scientists who Chu has found critical of this idea. Chu, in response, says the plant people might benefit from learning to think like physicists or science fiction authors, and I'm not one to play down the possibilities of learning from SF. What's more, the fact that the set of "things which are subtler than physicists think" is pretty much equal to the observable universe doesn't mean that physicists don't have wonderful insights to offer to everyone else, even if the tone in which those insights are offered can, occasionally, be a little hard to take. Anyway, even if the disambiguated stomata never come to pass, or don't deliver advantages, they still represent an idea about photosynthesis that I, as someone with a book on the subject inching towards publication, have never come across before, so lots of extra credit for freshness.
Much more practical is the two-pronged strategy Chu outlined for improving biomass systems: re-engineer the plants to be more easily converted into fuel (eg less lignin), and re-engineer various microbes to be better at carrying out that conversion directly. It makes a lot of sense, though there are some fairly subtle questions of sustainability that need to be addressed, at least as far as I'm concerned, before we can safely assume that large-scale agricultural systems will provide a significant fraction of our future fuel needs.
What didn't make a lot of sense, to European ears, was the way in which some of this was expressed. "Gallons per acre"? Please! They'll be talking about BTUs per bushel next. 21st century science and technology really shouldn't be expressed in sixteenth century units.