While skyrocketing oil prices and the sudden media-chicness of "carbon awareness" have led to a recent resurgence of interest and investment in the use microorganisms to convert agricultural harvests into energy and materials, this is certainly not our first crack at developing biotechnology to save the world.
It is surprising, however, just how long these ideas have been around, and how little biotechnology has moved forward since then, given how much new biology has been discovered during the same period (ie the structure and decoding of DNA and all that followed). In fact, if not for the Second World War, seems we may well have been operating under an agro-, rather than oil-based economy for the past 80 years. It's staggering to imagine where science and medicine would be today with the development of such a biological based economy.
Anyhow, back to the 1930s - when interestingly a food surplus rather than today's oil shortage was the main crisis driving interest in developing biotechnology. At the time of course, farm-based North American economies were being ravaged by agricultural surpluses and prices so low that harvests couldn't be burned quickly enough to get them back up. US Republican Party research revealed that agriculture could not be sustained "unless farm commodities are developed as raw materials for the manufacturing industry" (ie to increase demand and crop value). Smelling opportunity, Dow Chemicals research director William Hale envisioned the development of a "Chemurgy" industry that would convert farm surpluses to chemical products. In particular, he suggested that alcohol, a substitute for gasoline fuel, could be produced from fermented starches (which he cleverly referred to as 'agricrude'). Nice idea, but at the time, a vast supply of domestic North American oil provided little economic incentive for the development of alternative fuel technologies. We may be getting close - 70 years or so later - now as we finally approach the point at which it seems the cost/benefit of extracting oil might be high enough to motivate the energy sector to seriously invest in alternatives - maybe.
So while chemurgy seems to have been a non-starter for fuel production in the world of the late 30s, the blossoming auto industry was struggling with increasing metal costs, and Henry Ford looked to chemurgy for new materials. Sponsoring chemurgy research and meetings, Ford then decided to build a prototype plastic-bodied car made from soybean source. The Henry Ford Museum cites 3 reasons for his decision to undertake the project:
1.) He was looking for a project that would combine the fruits of industry with agriculture.
2.) He also claimed that the plastic panels made the car safer than traditional steel cars; and that the car could even roll over without being crushed.
3.) Another reason was due to a shortage of metal at the time. Henry hoped his new plastic material might replace the traditional metals used in cars.
Although it seems to have since disappeared (maybe found its way into some veggie burgers?), the car was amazingly built (the work of E.T. (Bob) Gregorie, Lowell E. Overly, and Robert A. Boyer) and unveiled in 1941. As shown in one of the pictures, Henry Ford liked to publicly demonstrate the strength of the soybean plastic car was by taking an axe to it.
Sadly, the project was a casualty of WWII, when automobiles were replaced by tanks, which understandably demanded a little more robustness than soybeans could offer. Since the war the automotive industry has found other ways to satisfy its materials needs, and hence, still no soybeans on the road to this day.
Note - I discovered this great story (and many, many others) in a book I picked up in a recent trip to Cambridge, The Uses of Life: A History of Biotechnology by Robert Bud. A truly mind-boggling and comprehensive account of international experimentation with biotech- I highly recommend it and its better than anything in Oprah's book club.