The Washington Post Magazine published an interesting profile yesterday of biologist J. Craig Venter: “Rad Scientist: Maverick biologist J. Craig Venter is in a race to save the planet.” The profile discusses Venter’s company Synthetic Genomics, the J. Craig Venter Institute (JVCI), and his recent effort to create a new species of algae that can generate biofuels and process green-house gases. Venter’s work is truly ground-breaking and will one day change our lives — in fact, it already has (see below). The article by Susan Okie is terrific and is a must-read for anyone interested in genomics and the future of biotechnology.
Venter has a long list of accomplishments, but he’s best known for three things. First, in 1995 he sequenced the first complete genome of a free-living organism. The sequence of all the As, Gs, Cs, and Ts that make up an organism’s genetic information forms the basis of modern molecular biology and is a routine part of science today. Second, in 1998 Venter left the government funded Human Genome Project (HGP) to found his own privately funded company, Celera Genomics. Frustrated with the slow progress of the HGP, Venter established his own human genome project to compete with the HGP at the National Institutes of Heath (NIH). Venter’s strategy was faster and cheaper and produced a draft of the human genome (his genome) at the same time the official NIH project finally did. Finally, in 2010 Venter created and published the first synthetic genome. His team synthesized a new bacterial genome from scratch and placed it inside of a living bacterial cell. The genome worked, synthesizing all the mRNA and proteins of a normal cell, and eventually replaced all the components of its original cell with those created from its synthetic genome. The new species, Mycoplasma laboratorium, represents the future of bioengineering, evolution, and genomics. Now Venter wants to use his skill in sequencing and synthesizing genomes to create bacteria and algae that generate biofuels to help end our dependence on fossil fuels and stop global climate change.
As you might expect, Venter’s a pretty polarizing figure. Depending on who you ask, he is either a genius or a mad-scientist. Or both. I think of him as the type of character that Michael Crichton use to write about: as in Jurassic Park or Prey, Venter is a man on the very leading edge of science, constantly pushing forward, but without any way to truly test the consequences of his discoveries. Or maybe, like Batman, Venter is a vigilante. When the academic world is moving too cautiously to produce the necessary results, Venter does the job on his own. Independently wealthy and able to work outside of the strict confines of academia, Venter does things his way. Put in his own words: “Science in my view is, and should be, fun. A lot of people make it tedious. I don’t understand why.”
Venter’s research has the potential to change the world for the better — or worse. He is opening new doors, forcing us to confront important questions in technology and ethics. For better or worse, we can all look forward to an interesting future thanks to J. Craig Venter. Learn about him and read his book, A Life Decoded: My Genome: My Life. You will be hearing his name again.