San Diego's Diversa is sort of the Indiana Jones of the biotech field. The company earns money from discovering microbes with unusual commercial properties. Some produce enzymes that get sold to the food industry or pharmaceutical designers.
They go all over the world to find them. One of the company's microbes was discovered in a frozen cow pie from Siberia.
With the growing popularity of alternative energy, the company will move into biofuels, said William Baum, executive vice president of Diversa. In about a year, the company hopes to have a partner to produce corn ethanol. In these partnerships, Diversa will essentially provide the microbes to break down vegetable matter; the partner will then turn the mash into alcohol that can be then burned in cars.
In five years or so, Diversa hopes to be making ethanol from biomass, i.e. leaves and other plant matter thrown in the garbage.
Corn on its own won't make a huge dent in the fuel situation, he said, a position backed up by other research. The U.S. consumes about 140 billion galloons of transportation fuel a year. Corn at best could produce 12 to 15 billion gallons a year.