The Joint Genome Institute will host a free evening panel discussion Tuesday at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek on the future of biofuels.

The panel features leading scientists working to develop plant-derived fuels that -- if the endeavor succeeds -- would gradually supplant gasoline and diesel fuel. These "advanced biofuels" would use drought-tolerant plants such as switch grass and miscanthus instead of corn for developing the liquid fuels.

The discussion is designed to inform the public about cutting-edge biofuels research under way in the Bay Area and to bolster understanding of the technology, which has legions of supporters and critics.

"It's good for us to understand, through questions and answers, where the community is," said Jim Bristow, deputy director of JGI, which is funded by the Department of Energy.

Jay Keasling, director of the Joint BioEnergy Institute in Emeryville, will provide a primer on the biology behind biofuel development, and describe research to develop "synthetic microbes" engineered to most efficiently break down tough, fibrous plant material into what will ultimately become fuel. The Joint BioEnergy Institute opened in 2008 with a $125 million Department of Energy grant, and a mandate of developing alternates to corn-based ethanol within five years.

"We recognize that some of the organism engineering that we're contemplating may be challenging for some people," Bristow said.


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Bristow will describe the Joint Genome Institute's transition from playing a key role in human genome sequencing projects to its new focus on sequencing plants and an encyclopedia of potentially useful microbes. Scientists are seeking microbes that would most cost effectively break down tough plant material like wood chips and plant stalks and extract from them simple sugars easily converted to fuel.

"It's a really hard problem," Bristow said.

Also joining the discussion moderated by KTVU-TV Channel 2 Science Editor John Fowler will be genome institute scientist Susannah Tringe.

Federal energy policy is focused on developing advanced biofuels for replacing part of the nation's oil supply. Congress and the Department of Energy state that the nation's reliance on fossil fuels creates environmental and national security threats, and Bristow said an educated citizenry can assist in fashioning the best policy on biofuel development and use.

"An informed public can help guide our public leaders," he said.

The event is the first of a series of public talks the Joint Genome Institute in Walnut Creek plans this year. Others, with dates to be announced, will address how microbes helped in cleanup after the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and greenhouse gas emissions from melting Arctic permafrost.

"The Future of Fuel" will be held from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Lesher Center, 1601 Civic Drive in Walnut Creek. Call the ticket office at 925-943-7469 to reserve free tickets.