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Superbugs! Or The New Velcro

Here's an awesome lede, from a story that's part of Forbes' new online package about energy efficiency as the invisible "fifth fuel":

They don't need oxygen, they don't need sunlight. They can survive acid baths and doses of radiation 5,000 times more intense than the amount needed to kill a human. They can breathe metal, eat nuclear waste, drink boiling toxins and even heal their own wounds. Now scientists think these superbugs--known as extremophiles--may be the secret to a new energy economy.

Righto! What can't these critters do? Researchers worldwide are trying to find out:

In the past three years, the U.S. government has invested millions of dollars to figure out how extremophiles create, collect, store and expend energy in ways once reserved to the realm of comic book superheroes....

While a few of these bugs have attracted attention for their ability to break down biomass like switchgrass and wood chips into biofuels, bugs are being designed to solve the full spectrum of today's energy and environmental challenges.

For instance, Nate Lewis, a professor at California Institute of Technology, has identified bugs that replicate photosynthesis but achieve far greater energy yields. Rittman is working with micro-organisms that can convert solar energy into liquid fuels. Scientists at MIT are investigating bacteria that could lead to new fuel-cell technologies. Bugs are also being designed to clean water, eat carbon in coal plants, neutralize nuclear radiation and even enhance human mobility in outer space.

And so forth. And reportedly, the push for fresh thinking in Washington has expanded from ARPA-E at Energy to the departments of Commerce, Agriculture and Defense, and "energy-related legislation like the America COMPETES Act and the Advanced Energy Initiative has accelerated the pace and scale of research in the program."

The Vine has covered offbeat developments like snake wave-makers, green bras and "oilgae," that (contra Doug Holtz-Eakin) are direct byproducts of a fertile climate for investments that save America money and energy. Though the bug stuff is reportedly "in its freaking infancy," what strikes about this kind of research is how clearly it contradicts the views of those who, like Brendan O'Neill believe green thinking sees "individuals, not as history-makers, but as filthy polluters." Here, the "insectarian" approach is neither a familiar conservationist tack, nor a bloodless regulatory fix taken with fingers crossed. It's hard science--applied to a potentially devastating problem. And it's as good an argument for biodiversity as I've heard.

Happily, every day a story like Forbes' surfaces, the presumption of unhealthy groupthink among greens dissipates. What's more, the market for environmental action, like any other, is remarkably self-correcting. The comparatively rapid realization that biofuels may be an erroneous allocation of precious food resources is a good example. The push among greens for more kitchen table conversation is another.

Al Gore's call to action last week, demanding all of America's electricity to be sourced from renewables in ten years, has been likened to the moon shot proposed by John Kennedy in 1960. But despite the warm fuzzies such analogies induce, comparisons to the Apollo project are imprecise. That mission offered a single target (visible each night!) around which Americans could rally. The many-headed hydra of climate change hardly lends itself to bullet points--but the multiplicity of solutions are, I think, what makes energy action universally appealing. After all, Apollo took Velcro to scale; what awesome/ubiquitous new technology will our energy crisis bring?

--Dayo Olopade 

(Photo: Scientists testify before a House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming hearing entitled 'Pumping up Prices: The Strategic Petroleum Reserve and Record Gas Prices.' Courtesy Getty Images.)