Barstow Research Team

Department of Biological and Environmental Engineering, Cornell University

Why We're Doing What We're Doing

Investments in sustainable energy technology could be one of the best bang-for-buck investments in global public health ever made. In the coming century, growth of the global economy will lift billions of people into the developed world. This could be one of the greatest opportunities ever presented to improve global public health: raising GDP per capita from $400 to $2,000 raises life expectancy from 42 to 62 years, comparable to the effect of antibiotics and vaccines. However, this opportunity will only be realized if this development is done right. If CO2 emissions follow a business-as-usual trajectory, global GDP could shrink by as much as 20%. In a developed nation like the USA this equates to a reduction in life expectancy of about 0.5 years, 5 times the reduction due to the opioid epidemic. In developing nations, it equates to a loss of 5 years. These losses could be further amplified by heat-death, malnutrition, vector-borne disease, mass migration, and resource conflict.

Investments in a new sustainable energy technologies and a new sustainable energy infrastructure could be the best way to ensure and build upon the gains of economic development. In fact, this could be the growth story of the 21st century. We'll need to rebuild our existing energy infrastructure, that was built over the past 2 centuries, by 2050 to make it carbon neutral, and then will probably need to build it 4 times over again by the end of the century. If this isn't an opportunity, I don't know what is.

Non-model microbes offer a unique set of catalytic, materials synthesis and energy storage capabilities for the sustainable energy infrastructure including capture and storage of solar energy, sequestration of CO2, and extration and purification of rare eath elements that are essential for sustainable energy technologies. However, almost no naturally-occurring microbe fits the bill for any sustainable energy application. New technologies for gene synthesis, editing and evolution give unprecedented capabilities to construct designer microbes. But, the knowledge of what genetic sequences to write and edit has not expanded at nearly the same rate (30-40% of the genes in any organism sequenced today are of unknown function). Construction of the most useful genetic characterization tool, a whole genome knockout collection, has traditionally required an enormous undertaking (hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars and years of work). The amazing capabilities that non-model organisms offer to energy remain hidden in their genetic codes.

Our job is to decode the secrets of biology and then use them to solve pressing problems in sustainable energy.