Craig Venter, the man who led the privately funded project to sequence the human genome, is someone who likes to mix business with pleasure. And for a geneticist whose passion is sailing, there can be few more satisfying ways of doing so than sampling genes in the Sargasso sea, near Bermuda. The samples he took there last year yielded a surprise.

The sea had looked as though it was the oceanic equivalent of a desert, bereft of nutrients, and with little life beyond the Sargassum weed that gives the sea its name. But when Dr Venter ran his samples through his newly developed method for sequencing the DNA of an entire environment, some 1.2m new genes turned up from an estimated 1,800 species of microbe previously unknown to science. An apparently empty sea was teaming with bacterial life.

Such newly discovered genes are the raw material for the infant, but rapidly developing field that makes useful chemicals via genetically modified organisms. It is part of what is known as industrial biotechnology, where cells from animals, plants and bacteria are used to generate industrially useful products. The Sargasso results, outlined last week to the World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology and Bioprocessing, in Orlando, Florida, by Dr Venter’s colleague Karin Remington, suggest there are a lot of useful raw materials to be found.

Dr Venter’s Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives, based in Rockville, Maryland, is now taking further samples from around the world. Although Dr Venter is turning such bioprospecting from a sport using a fishing line to one using a trawling net, looking for new bacteria is already a well-established activity. The business models of firms such as Diversa, a company based in San Diego, are centred on it.

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