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Dr J Craig Venter – A DNA-Driven World

Posted by Bola Egunjobi on December 21, 2007

I listened with utter fascination and rapt attention as Dr Craig Venter gave this year’s Richard Dimbleby Lecture on the BBC1 on Tuesday 4th December. I made rapid notes as I listened and wanted to publish my summary on the web immediately afterwards to share this amazing view of the future with as many people as possible.  Unfortunately my notes missed some key points and I did not think I would serve this wonderful lecture well by publishing them.

Thankfully, the full text of Dr Venter’s Dimbleby lecture is now widely available on the Internet. The lecture is very long (it took Dr Venter an hour to read it on BBC1), so I have created a long excerpt of some of the key points here. I have also broken my excerpt into sections with sub-headings for bite-sized readability. The sub-headings are mine, but the words in the paragraphs are Dr Venter’s (talking in the first person). 

Introduction: A DNA-Driven World

Dr Venter is considered by many to be a maverick. He had no interest in science until he found himself in the medical corps in Vietnam. Now he would like to make science interesting to every child. He sees the study of genomics as holding the key to solving rising healthcare costs and combating global warming. The answers, he says, lie in man controlling evolution, creating new species of microbes and using existing ones to generate more cost-effective and environmentally friendly alternatives to fossil fuels. 


 

Science is important

“Our planet is in crisis, and we need to mobilize all of our intellectual forces to save it. One solution could lie in building a scientifically literate society in order to survive. “I did not get excited about science until after I was drafted into the military during the Vietnam War and ended up in the medical corps. It was only there in the chaos of war that I learned firsthand that knowledge had real life and death consequences. While I went on to pursue a career in science after serving in Vietnam, I wish that my interest in science had been stimulated much sooner.” 

Making science interesting to children

“To begin the process of change we need to start with our children by teaching them to explore, challenge, and problem solve in an attempt to understand the world around them. Science and engineering need to be national and global priorities if we are to cope with the complexities ahead. What can we do to change this situation? One solution could be new teaching methods aimed at exciting students about discovery.  “At the Venter Institute we have developed a mobile genomics laboratory to bring the science of genomics to 12 and 13 year olds to expose these students to scientific problem solving and the excitement of science. I think this program succeeds because in each lesson plan we convey the wonderment of discovery and problem solving. For example, one lesson involves solving a crime scene investigation using DNA analysis much like is done in a popular TV program CSI. Had I been exposed to science in this real world manner I might have had a much better educational experience and at an earlier stage forged a stronger interest in science.” 

Prevention is more cost-effective than cure

“Perhaps one of our greatest problems is that almost every aspect of our modern society is geared toward only dealing with problems after they have occurred, rather than focusing on prevention. We do not use our intellectual capacity to understand the possibility of preventing wars, or repairing infrastructures before they fail, or preventing diseases. We need to understand that it is far more cost effective, with better life outcomes, to prevent than to cure a problem once it has occurred. “For example, the cost of health care is one of the fastest growing expenses. In 2005 total US health expenditure was a staggering $2 trillion. And it is expected to reach $4 trillion in 2015. That’s 20 percent of GDP. But all this money does not seem to guarantee the highest quality health care.” 

Healthcare

“Preventative medicine is the only way forward that I see for lowering the cost of health care other than the unacceptable approach of denying access. One of the keys to preventative medicine will be an understanding of our genetic risk for future diseases along with a greater understanding of the corresponding environmental influences of disease.  “Just three months ago in September, we published the first complete human genome sequence and now it is available to all on the internet. It was my own genome that was sequenced and published. Our genetic code is not deterministic and will provide us very few yes-no answers. It will, however, provide probabilities concerning outcomes that we will eventually be able to influence. However, by reading my own genome, I have a chance to overcome my genetics by making changes in my diet and exercise. 

“At my institute we are now scaling up to sequence the genomes from 10,000 people. This will provide a massive and powerful database, particularly when linked with clinical records and life outcomes. At that stage, we will have a much clearer view of the genetic basis of humanity. Will governments, businesses and insurance companies pay the smaller amount in advance to prevent disease? Or will we be locked into the current system of treating only what we can see?” 

Climate Change

“But the fundamental problem facing our planet – that of climate change — is one that is far more grave. In fact, unless we tackle this head on, health care could be the least of our worries. 

“The data is irrefutable–carbon dioxide concentrations have been steadily increasing in our atmosphere as a result of human activity since the earliest measurements began. We know that on the order of 4.1 billion tons of carbon are being added to and staying in our atmosphere each year. We know that burning fossil fuels and deforestation are the principal contributors to the increasing carbon dioxide concentrations in our atmosphere. We know that increasing CO2 concentrations has the same effect as the glass walls and roof of a greenhouse. It lets the energy from the sun easily penetrate but limits its escape, hence the term greenhouse gas.  

“The developed world including the United States, England and Europe contribute disproportionately to the environmental carbon, but the developing world is rapidly catching up. As the world population increases from 6.5 billion people to 9 billion over the next 45 years and countries like India and China continue to industrialize, some estimates indicate that we will be adding over 20 billion tons of carbon a year to the atmosphere. 

“Many have argued that we simply need to conserve, to alter and regress our standard of living and block the industrialization of developing countries. In my view this is extremely naive thinking… It is clear to me that we need more approaches and creative solutions. We need new disruptive ideas and technologies to solve these critical global issues. This is where, I believe, biology and genomics, come in.” 

Biology and genomics are all-encompassing

“Utilizing biology we have the ability to address every area of our lives–from medical treatment, to renewable sources of fuels. Plastics, carpets, clothing, medicines, and motor oil – all of these things can be created by biological organisms, and in an environmentally sustainable manner. 

“There are some fields where predicting and counting on exponential change has become reasonable and reliable. We see such exponential change in the world of electronics and in the growth of the human population. Therefore isn’t it possible the same could hold true for changing education, medicine, replacing the petrochemical industry, and saving the environment? Such exponential growth is seen in genomics. Over a short period of time, genome projects which 10 years ago required several years to complete now take only days. Within 5 years it will be commonplace to have your own genome sequenced. 

“Using genomics has also rapidly accelerated the discovery of new species. We are decoding the DNA of the world’s oceans, identifying the microbes that live inside of us, and cataloguing the tens of thousands of microbes and viruses that are in the air we breathe.” 

Synthetic biology

“Above all, I believe the best examples of disruptive technologies that could change our future are in the new fields of synthetic biology, synthetic genomics, and metabolic engineering. Simply put: these areas of research will enable us to create new fuels to replace oil and coal. 

“Imagine scientists in the near future sitting at their computers and designing the chromosome of a new organism, an organism that perhaps could produce fuels biologically, fuels like octane, diesel fuel, jet fuel even hydrogen all from sugar or even sunlight with the carbon coming from carbon dioxide. 

“Imagine that after designing the new chromosome, the computer directed a robot to chemically make the DNA strand encoding all that information, and that once constructed, the new chromosome would be inserted into a bacterial cell where it becomes activated causing the cell to turn into the species that the scientist designed. And now imagine that new species in a bioreactor making millions of copies of itself and each copy is producing a new fuel from only renewable sources. Sounds like science fiction right? Not to me, because I believe this is the future. 

“For the past 15 years at ever faster rates we have been digitizing biology. By that I mean going from the analog world of biology through DNA sequencing into the digital world of the computer. I also refer to this as reading the genetic code. We and others have been working for the past several years on the ability to go from reading the genetic code to learning how to write it. It is now possible to design in the computer and then chemically make in the laboratory, very large DNA molecules. A few months ago we published a scientific study in the journal Science where we described the ability to take a chromosome from one bacterium and place it into a second bacterial cell. The result was astonishing – the new DNA that we added changed the species completely from the original one into the species defined by the added DNA. You could describe this as the ultimate in identity theft. 

“Instead of evolution happening only due to random mutations that survived selective pressure, we can see how by adding chromosomes to or exchanged between species, that thousands of changes could happen in an instant. Now they can happen not just by random chance but by deliberate human design and selection. Human thought and design and specific selection is now replacing Darwinian evolution. 

“One of the most significant and unique features of our research in synthetic genomics is the long history of ethical review. The organisms being designed cannot survive outside of the laboratory and are subject to strict containment.” 

Renewable sources of fuel using microbes

“But we don’t always have to modify bacteria or design new ones. For instance, we have a team at my institute headed by Ken Nealson that has developed microbial fuel cells using naturally occurring bacteria. These organisms can process human and animal waste to produce electricity and or clean water. 

“At my company Synthetic Genomics, we have a major program underway in collaboration with BP to see if we can use naturally occurring microbes to metabolize coal into methane which can then be harvested as natural gas. While not a renewable source of carbon, it could provide as much as a 10 fold improvement over mining and burning coal. We also have organisms that can convert CO2 into methane thereby providing a renewable source of fuel.” 

Conclusion

In closing: It is my hope that we can embrace, not fear, the necessary science to help our planet. I feel it is imperative that we begin to find ways to adapt to climate change, while at the same time working to mitigate it. If we apply ourselves I believe we can find ways to create alternatives to burning oil and coal. These are massive challenges for each and every one of us. For our children’s future and for the future of our species and our planet I hope that we can rise to the challenge.”

 Click here to see Dr Venter's books on Amazon, including 'A Life Decoded'.

Dr Venter’s books on Amazon.  

Interesting question one:
What about faith and our beliefs? 
 
When he says “Teaching science as evidence-based decision making could have a profound impact on the pace of future discoveries and inventions. Simply asking what is the evidence behind any claim is a marked contrast to approaching life only upon a faith-based system.”, is Dr Venter being disdainful of faith-based religion?

  

Interesting question two:
Should man take control of evolution, or would we be playing God?
 
Given Dr Venter’s assertion that we now have the ability to “create” microbes (micro organisms) in the laboratory, do we run the risk of playing God? Dr Venter appears to believe that we do when he says that it is in man’s best interest to now take the lead and influence evolution rather than just let it happen. But Dr Venter sees this more as a necessity for the very survival of our race and our planet, rather than a risk. What are your views?

  

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4 Responses to “Dr J Craig Venter – A DNA-Driven World”

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  2. My friend on Facebook shared this link with me and I’m not dissapointed that I came to your blog.

  3. Ben said

    I’m disappointed that people as smart as Dr. Venter can also be so short-sided. Global warming is a fad science. Some day he will be embarrassed of his comments.

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