Venter wows crowd in first Centennial Lecture

Genomic pioneer describes future wonders of synthetic biology

Genomics pioneer Craig Venter kicked off Rice University’s Centennial Lecture Series Wednesday with a polished, thought-provoking look at how far genomic science has come in the past 20 years and how far it may go in the not-so-distant future.

Venter delivered an engaging hourlong lecture, “From Reading to Writing the Genetic Code,” to more than 1,200 faculty, staff, students and campus guests at Tudor Fieldhouse.

“The future is going to be very different than a lot of you may think as we move into the new digital era of biology,” he said. “I’m going to take you on a tour of genomics that includes everything from reading the first genomes to now showing you that we can send information, send life, as electromagnetic waves at the speed of light, with a biological teleporter.”

Regarded as one of the leading scientists of the 21st century, Venter led a privately financed effort in the late 1990s that raced a federally funded consortium of laboratories to sequence the human genome. The competition from Venter forced the National Institutes of Health to speed up its $3 billion effort, and in the end, the two teams announced their results at the same time in 2001.

“DNA I view as an analog molecule,” he said. “It has these four letters of the genetic code in a biological system, and when we read that code, we convert it into the ones and zeros of a computer.

Venter, who holds bachelor’s and doctoral degrees from the University of California at San Diego, is the founder, chairman and president of the J. Craig Venter Institute, a nonprofit research organization in La Jolla, Calif. It is an organization that has continued the push the boundaries of genomic research throughout the past decade.

Venter described genomic studies his team has undertaken to investigate heredity, human evolution, diversity of microbial life in the ocean and air, stem cell microbiology and the role the human “microbiome,” the aggregate of all the microorganisms that reside on or in the human body.

He said it may be possible to “really get a clear picture of human physiology by looking at all of these components. Even though it’s a lot more complex than looking at our 100 trillion cells, our 20,000 genes, our 10 million bacterial genes or the 500 chemicals (in our blood) that are constantly changing, I’m optimistic for the first time we will start to get real information about human biology and human physiology.”

Venter’s recent work has gone beyond simply reading genomes and delved increasingly into manipulating and even creating them.

“The new challenge is going the other way,” he said. “Can we start with those ones and zeros and recreate life out of the computer by remaking analog molecules and then activating them?”

In fact, his team did just that in 2010 when it created the first cell with a synthetic genome. It was the largest molecule with a defined structure that had ever been manufactured, Venter said as he described how his team created a series of new techniques to reach the goal of assembling the 1.1 million DNA pairs. When the genome initially failed, he said, they invented another new technology, a “debugging” system that eventually found one misplaced letter.

In the study, the synthetic genome was inserted into a microbe, which was subjected to a battery of tests that “found not a single molecule from the original species,” Venter said.

“All that we changed was the DNA software,” he said. “So it should be starting to become clear that DNA is the software system of life, and if you change the software, you change the species. That is a very different view of biology than people had before we studied this.”

Venter mentioned the need for ethics in deciding how to use the tools of synthetic biology and recommended the December 2010 report of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues.

He also described new work that hints at what synthetic biology may provide in the future. He said his institute is using synthetic biology to modify algae to produce both biofuels and new types of foods, and his teams have created new methods that can produce the formula for a new flu vaccine in as little as 12 hours, a significant improvement over the current process, which takes several months.

The portion of the talk that sounded most like science fiction dealt with distributed manufacturing in the form of desktop “biological conversion devices.

Venter said such devices would make it possible for people to download insulin and other drugs from the Internet and produce them in their home.

“In the future, you’ll have a little box next to your computer, and you’ll be able to do things like download the flu vaccine from the Internet. So instead of waiting nine months to see if you are on some kind of priority list to get the new pandemic vaccine, we can send it everywhere in the world in less than a second.”

The Centennial Lecture Series also featured talks Oct. 11 by angel investor Esther Dyson, Pritzker Prize-winning architect Rem Koolhaas and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute President and physicist Shirley Ann Jackson. An additional speaker, Chief Justice of the United States John G. Roberts Jr., will present “A Conversation with the Chief Justice” Oct. 17 in Tudor Fieldhouse.

About Jade Boyd

Jade Boyd is science editor and associate director of news and media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.