Half-Billion-Dollar Bonanza for Plant Scientists

Eli is a contributing correspondent for Science magazine.

A new $500 million biofuels institute will be built at the University of California (UC), Berkeley, with funds from BP, the oil giant announced today. The award marks a new era for plant scientists and a new commitment by the fossil fuel giant toward renewable energy science. "We are joining with some of the world's best science and engineering talent to meet the world's demand for low-carbon energy," said Bob Malone, chair and president of BP America, in a prepared statement.

Details of the Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI) are still being decided, but the basic outlines of the partnership have been sketched out. UC Berkeley will erect a new building for the institute, which will have space for public research done by UC Berkeley faculty, many yet to be hired, and private space that BP will rent for proprietary work on products or techniques they want to commercialize. The main focus will be making new biofuels for automobiles, although researchers will also pursue biological studies related to using microorganisms for carbon sequestration and fossil fuel recovery. Some 25 laboratories are envisioned, housing everything from plant scientists devoted to creating new strains of feedstock crops to mechanical engineers designing new farm equipment. Roughly 50 BP scientists will work at the UC Berkeley institute and a smaller, sister version at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, which partnered with UC Berkeley in the bid.

UC Berkeley beat out four other research heavyweights in the competition for the institute: UC San Diego, MIT, and British powerhouses Imperial College London and the John Innes Centre. A big UC Berkeley advantage, said BP Group Chief Executive John Browne, was its track record of managing large projects. BP officials cited Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the Molecular Foundry biology laboratory, and the Advanced Light Source, a light synchrotron.

Plant scientists welcome BP's new contribution to plant molecular biology, a field that has long touted its potential for energy applications without much federal or private funding. American Society of Plant Biologists President Richard Amasino of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, says BP's commitment to broad basic research in biofuels as opposed to narrow product development makes the partnership special. "What they're looking for is exploration," he says. "It's wonderful that British Petroleum is funding something that's open like this."

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