Tuesday, 03 December 2013 11:01

The Speed of Synthetic Biology: Craig Venter’s Incredible Voyage To Digitize the Life Force

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J Craig Venter Credit Brett ShipeDigital life comes to New Orleans as Craig Venter gives an
ASCB keynote and signs copies of Life At the Speed of Light.
Photo by Brett Shipe, courtesy of Viking Press
An experiment: Some warm and starry night, take two senior cell biologists out on a boat. Put wine or beer or something that signals "closed for the day" into one hand and a copy of Craig Venter's latest book, Life At the Speed of Light into the other. (You might have to hold the flashlight.) Ask aloud, "So what do you think of Craig Venter?" Be prepared for a long but interesting night.

In biology, J. Craig Venter has made himself a force to be reckoned with. He was well known in the field in the early 1990s for his pioneering work at NIH in scaling up "shotgun" sequencing, randomly slicing DNA into short fragments and assembling the sequences by computer matching. But it was after he went out on his own, first at The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR) and then as a co-founder of the commercial biotech firm Celera, that Venter became a household name when he challenged the public Human Genome project to a race. Eventually the publication of the first draft of the human genome in 2000 was declared a tie.

After that Venter launched (on his own yacht) an around-the-world expedition to sample bacterial and viral diversity in the world's oceans. At the J. Craig Venter Institute, headquartered in San Diego, he has steadily pursued the goal of truly synthetic biology, painstakingly synthesizing from chemicals the entire genome of Mycoplasma mycoides, assembling the DNA "cassettes" in yeast, and then transplanting the genome into a nucleus-free receptor cell. The labor-intensive result was what Venter described as the first human-made species in 2010. His ultimate goal is to digitize genomics so that a remote analyzer, his Digital Biological Converter (DBC), could sequence species in far away places and then email the digitized results for transformation by a kind of DNA printer. For a remote location, Venter's lab has been testing the DBC in the Mojave Desert. For his ultimate test, Venter wants to put a DBC robot on Mars with a deep soil probe to recover Martian life forms from the permafrost or deep water deposits, sequence them, and transmit the digitized genome to Earth, where his lab could print out the alien life form.

This is exactly the sort of thing that gets TV interviewers and the Internet fired up but besides generating buzz, Venter has long been aware of the potential for the "Are you playing God?" backlash inherent in synthetic genomics as well as its implications for bioterrorism. He has reached out to the bioethics community and even invited a bioethicist team from the University of Pennsylvania to study the synthetic M. mycoides work before it was published in Science.

Founder of his own institute, Venter is recipient of the U.S. National Medal of Science as well as a stack of honorary degrees and awards, and has a long list of scientific publications in top-flight journals. He's also appeared on The Colbert Report, was profiled on Sixty Minutes, and gave a TED talk back when you had to be extra cool to give a TED talk.

Venter practices bold, high-concept, high profile science. It may be unsettling to some but exciting to those who believe that the modern scientific enterprise needs a wider horizon. The details are all here in Life at the Speed of Light. If the last chapters are jaw dropping, the first part of the book is an erudite refutation of the concept of vitalism, which stalked biology until the triumph of DNA/RNA as the digitized mechanism of evolution.

If you're lucky enough to be at the ASCB Annual Meeting in New Orleans on Saturday, December 14, you can hear about Venter's latest ideas and projects at the Keynote. The next morning at 11:00, Venter will be autographing copies of Life at the Speed of Light. Once you have your cell biologists on board for your late-night Venter experimental cruise, you can point out that they are holding autographed copies.

John Fleischman

John is ASCB Senior Science Writer and the author among other things of two nonfiction books for older children, "Phineas Gage: A Gruesome But True Story About Brain Science" and "Black & White Airmen," both from Houghton-Mifflin-Harcourt, Boston.

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