Last week I had the privilege of speaking with J. Craig Venter at the Hillside Club in Berkeley, as part of the Bay Area Science Festival. Dr. Venter is a pioneer in biotech, from sequencing the Human Genome to creating a synthetic organism. It was an exciting moment for me, personally, as he thinks in terms of moonshots and succeeds often (through the failures).
Dr. Venter was in Berkeley as part of his tour to promote his new book, Life at the Speed of Light, which was inspired by Erwin Schroedinger’s question in 1943, “What is Life?” That question set Dr. Venter off on a life-long quest: first, to first take life apart and then rebuild it; to test his understanding of the machinery of life; and, ultimately, prove that he and humanity could rebuild life from scratch. The machinery of life still involves a lot of mystery, even for the simplest synthetic organisms. When when they were building the first synthetic organism, they focused on the minimum number of genes needed to create a viable life form. They found that they needed to include 50 genes with unknown functions. Without these genes, they couldn’t get the organism to “boot up.” They are clearly necessary, but why? What do they do? We still don’t know.
Venter also shared his thoughts on life on Mars. He thinks it is likely that life has existed on Mars, as Earth and Mars regularly exchange large amounts of particulate matter filled with bacteria. He’s planning a project to sequence Martian DNA (which he believes exists), with a plan to send the digital DNA sequence back to Earth for re-synthesis. His ultimate aim is to rebuild Martian bacteria on Earth for further study. Venter’s joy in exploring the domain of life rang through. With the rapidly decreasing costs of genetic sequencing and the tiny fraction of bacterial species that we have sequenced, anyone can now be an explorer. In every breath of air or every clump of dirt we grab, there are a multitude of new bacterial species waiting to be discovered.
At the end of Venter’s talk, I was able to ask him, “Where do you think the next moonshots in biotechnology will be?” His answer left me excited about the future. He said that the world’s population is rapidly rising; there are now seven billion people out there who desperately need access to medicine, food and energy. For humanity to live sustainability on this planet, we need revolutions in all of these areas, and those revolutions will be driven by new biotechnologies. His advice to any burgeoning scientist was that there is no area of human endeavor that will be left untouched by biotechnology, and all of these areas are fine areas to pursue.
As we’re all exploring, playing, biohacking DNA in front of computers, in labs, garages or at home, I look forward to the day when an innovation in biotechnology is just as likely to come from an industrial biotech lab in San Francisco as it is from the mind of a young biohacker in a home DIY Biolab. Venter left me with a sense of wonder and excitement for biotechnology and the future; I can’t wait to see what he sequences on Mars!