Craig Venter was in Boulder two nights ago, and I went to hear him speak. Twice he’s been named by TIME magazine as one of the world’s 100 most influential people and he’s someone that I’ve always paid attention to. I sat in the fifth row and was surprised to see that there were empty seats all around at this free talk.
In a wiki-nutshell, Venter is…
an American biochemist, geneticist, and entrepreneur. He is known for being one of the first to sequence the human genome and the first to transfect a cell with a synthetic genome.
Throughout Venter’s talk there was one theme in the way he views Nature’s code for life. He calls it software. He sees genetic code as the software which runs a system. Because computers have advanced so incredibly since his first human genome project was begun, it has become easy for geneticists today to study and use this living code.
Venter likes the Richard Feynman quote, “What I cannot create I do not understand.”
He is not afraid to say that by changing the DNA software, we can change the species, even though he admits that our biological knowledge, even as we try to design cells with computers, is very limited. He explained to us that our DNA is like a computer hard drive in that its code has gotten fragmented over many years of evolution, and they are trying to get the genes ordered by function.
One definitely got the impression that the science is ahead of the ethicists on this. I’m not sure how many people are aware of how far this technology has come. In his labs, they have already created a viable virus, a phage, and a living bacterium. He showed us a slide of a little black genome bot appliance box made by SGI. He assured us that each of these boxes has a large number of security features built in. Then he showed a theoretical future diagram where your own computer is connected to a box which you would be able to use to create your own dose of vaccine to protect yourself from the latest virulent virus. The syringe you’d need for the injection was shown laying next to the box.
He told us that last year’s new avian Chinese flu, the H7N9, looks to be a significant threat. He said that the Chinese put the code for it on the web very quickly after it was discovered, and that within a short period of time, Novartis in the U.S. had manufactured a vaccine for it that can protect every American. This was a process where real DNA became digital, and then the digital form became real DNA. (DNA>Digital>DNA) The question in my mind was what if another lab, instead, produced the virus from the Chinese-provided code, instead of the vaccine, and spread it around. Was our government motivated to act quickly to produce a vaccine to protect everyone because the Chinese had posted the H7N9 code on the internet?
The goal in synthetic biology experiments is always to try to make synthetic organisms that can’t survive outside of the lab, and there are ways of doing this.
In the past, there has been great difficulty and red tape due to various government regulations, in transferring biological materials across borders, but now, by publishing codes on the internet, or by sending them in an Email, this obstacle is no longer a problem for scientific researchers.
I won’t pretend that I understood everything he told us in the talk, nor do I understand all of the ethical issues. But, I do understand that this is huge. That our world going forward will be forever changed now that we have the code for life, now that we can create life.
In a New York Times Magazine article about Venter a few years ago, I found out that he enjoys racing motorcycles across the desert of California in his down time. Genes have been his life’s calling, that’s for sure, and he’s not afraid to go full throttle ahead, as he’s doing now at age 67. He’s working on human longevity, on creating organs for transplant that won’t require immunosuppression of the patient, on his ocean’s diversity sampling project, and on getting millions of human DNAs coded by 2020, so scientists can start figuring out where the differences that result in disease or advantages lie. His most recent book (2013) is titled, “Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life”.
His labs are currently in the process of hiring the best software people “on the planet” that they can lure away from companies such as Google. He informed us that in the future, “there will be more medical discoveries made by software engineers than by doctors.”
The company, 23andMe, is producing personal genome test kits for people, but questions raised by the FDA have stymied their goals somewhat.
He didn’t tell us about the bad that could come of any of this technology. What does he worry about, I wondered. What are the work-day lunch conversations about among his teams of scientists?
Venter recognizes the importance of the whole, including the supraorganisms that we are and recognizes that about 3 percent of our bodies are microbes which function together as a microbiome. Furthermore, metabolomics is the study of chemical processes which create metabolites in the body. After we eat a meal, as many as 500 different chemicals circulate in our bloodstream. Perhaps 50 percent of the chemicals in our brains are bacterial in origin.
In the end, he took audience questions. There weren’t all that many, so I got up and asked one. Not once did he mention his recent efforts and excitement about using algae for biodiesel. My impression was that he’d given up on the idea, but I wanted to hear it straight from him. I asked, “What amount of hopefulness do you have for algae cells ability to produce biodiesel for us in the future given the research that you have done?” He answered that for this to become economically viable, the current capacity of the algae cell to produce biodiesel would have to increase by at least an order of magnitude (which I took to mean 10 times). He said people have dreamed of doing this for a hundred years, but, that whenever you hear that someone is doing it successfully, the truth is that they are not. He told me that in one project today, the algae chromosome is being replaced entirely. He also blamed cheaper fuel today from fracking as a hindrance to motivation to do the research. He doesn’t expect any economically viable algae biodiesel to happen anytime soon.
This being Boulder, one person had the naivety to ask what he thought of GMOs for food production. Can you imagine asking Craig Venter what he thinks of using GMO technology to produce food? His answer wasn’t any different than any of the most basic and common answers you see in articles. He said the science isn’t scary or complicated, he mentioned golden rice, and he said we need the technology to feed people.
In another audience question, a father told him that his child has a very rare genetic disease and none with it live past the age of 30. Venter only offered that prevention through prenatal testing could be used, but also invited him to visit with him after the event.
Comments welcomed, especially from people who know the issues surrounding what Venter is doing better than I do.