Reading about some of the achievements and goals of J. Craig Venter, you can’t help but feeling that this maverick and innovative scientist is thinking further out of the box than his contemporaries when it comes to understanding the genome and what we can do with it.
Admittedly, his work draws controversies and criticism. Back in 1990, whilst working for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) on a project to sequence short cDNA fragments in the human brain, Venter announced to Congress that they were planning to file patents for these sequences at a rate of 1000 sequences per month 1. This went down like a lead balloon. James Watson described the plan as “sheer lunacy” and was “horrified” at the prospect 1. A public outcry ensued and the NIH withdrew the plans for patent applications.
Faster and cheaper
In 1998, Venter (along with the Applera Corporation) founded ‘Celera’- a company with a goal to sequence the human genome within three years 2. To do this, Celera pioneered the use of ‘shotgun sequencing’- a method rejected as being too inaccurate by the publically funded Human Genome Project (HGP). Celera was determined to sequence the entire genome faster and cheaper than the HGP. With the aim of patenting still in mind, Celera initially announced they would seek patents on a few hundred genes, but eventually filed preliminary patents for up to 6,500 partial and whole genes. However, in March 2000, President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Tony Blair made a brief announcement that there should be free access to the information from the human genome 3. Celera welcomed the statement, albeit defending their business at the same time. The Clinton/Blair statement led to a drop in biotech stocks, including a 19% in Celera shares 3. Despite this, Celera went on to sequence the human genome at a fraction of the cost of the HGP ($300 million versus $3 billion) and in February 2001, the HGP published their results in Nature, followed a day later by Celera who published their results in Science 4. It turned out that Venters’ DNA sample was one of the five used for sequencing by Celera. Venter was fired from Celera in 2002, although he had already made up his mind to leave the company 5.
Sampling the oceans
Later in 2002, Venter set up The Center for the Advancement of Genomics which became one of the divisions of the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI). In 2003, Venter turned his attention to the worlds’ oceans and following a pilot project, Venter and his team set off in 2004 in his own yacht (the Sorcerer II) to circumnavigate the globe for the Global Ocean Sampling (GOS) Expedition 6. The aim was to better understand the diversity of marine microbiological organisms, ecosystem functioning and to discover genes which play an evolutionary role. Covering around 32,000 nautical miles, this expedition led to the discovery of six million new genes and many thousands of new protein families 6. Further expeditions were launched in 2007/2008.
Changing species and synthesising life
In 2012, Venter gave the 70th Anniversary Schroedinger Lecture at Trinity College, Dublin. In it he stated “Life is based on DNA software. We’re a DNA software system, you change the DNA software, and you change the species.” 7. A team at JCVI had done just that in 2007. They had successfully transplanted the whole genome of one bacterial Mycoplasma species into another. On examining the recipient cells they found that none of the original proteins existed- the recipient hardware was running the donor software 8.
Not content with species swapping, scientists at the JCVI set out to create synthetic life. In 2010, Venter and colleagues published the results of a synthetic Mycoplasma species containing computer designed DNA 9. Named ‘JCVI-syn1.0’, these cells are capable of functioning and reproducing in the same way as naturally occurring bacteria. This proof of concept synthetic cell has societal and ethical implications- something which the JCVI welcomes discussion about. However, the applications of this technology are wide-ranging, from creating new medicines to advanced biofuels 10.
Setting his sights on space
In 2005, Venter founded Synthetic Genomics Inc. with an initial focus on biofuels. The work of this company has rapidly expanded into other areas including synthetic vaccine production 11. In addition, they have created a DNA synthesiser dubbed a ‘digital biological converter’ (DBC) or ‘biological teleporter’. This DBC can take digital DNA code and re-synthesise the sequence in the lab. In 2013, Venter gave an interview to ‘Wired’ magazine about his latest book, ‘Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life’ 12. In it, he proposed that if the Mars Curiosity Rover were able to sample Martian DNA, this sequence could be transmitted back to a laboratory on earth where a DBC could re-build Martian life in a maximum containment facility. Alternatively, the astronauts we send to Mars could take a DBC with them to enable mission control to send genetic information enabling them to ‘print off’ medicines.
Although this ambitious work is still at early stages, you can be sure that Venter and his colleagues will be behind this and future innovations, bringing with it much ethical debate and conversation.
J. Craig Venter
AUTHOR: MARTIN WILSON