I'm sitting in Synthetic Biology 2.0 at UC Berkeley. Talks started off with energy applications, which is interesting. Evidently there was also a big VC meeting in the last few days that focused on SB applications to producing energy.
Steve Chu (Nobel Laureate in Physics and Director of LBL) led off the talks with proposals that "excess" crop land in US could be used to "grow energy", by producing appropriate plants and methods via synthetic biology. He mentioned that despite global population expansion by a factor of ~2.5 in the last 60 years, cultivated land has only increased by ~10-15% due to increases in productivity. But Chu made no mention of the problem that we have trashed lots of crop land in the last 50 years, and it isn't obvious that we could use large amounts of land to grow energy given the state of the soil. More importantly, he made no mention of where we would get all the water to grow those energy crops.
I am all for growing our energy sustainably, of course, but I don't think that terrestrial crops have a hope of being the right answer. Best meme from Chu's talk was starting off with the most efficient engine design, figuring out the best fuel for that engine, then designing an organism to produce that fuel. Cool.
Craig Venter is speaking now. Lots on minimal genomes and looking at alternative pathways for directly producing energy. Directly photosynthetic production of methane, etc.