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HindustanTimes Tue,21 Oct 2014

HT Leadership Stories

Answer to world's future problems lies in synthetic biology: Dr Venter
Zofeen Maqsood, Hindustan Times
New Delhi, November 18, 2012
First Published: 00:18 IST(18/11/2012)
Last Updated: 00:20 IST(18/11/2012)
Dr J Craig Venter, chairman of Venter Institute, during the second day of Hindustan Times Leadership Summit in New Delhi. HT/Virendra Singh Gosain

While the issue of biological transportation and digital creation of cells has given rise to heated debates across the globe for ethical as well as religious reasons, Dr J Craig Venter - American biologist and founder, chairman and president of J Craig Venter Institute - chose to sum up synthetic biology as an exciting development in the science at the HT Leadership Summit. This, he said, was because it offered a plethora of exciting possibilities for digitalising life with a DNA code.

Dr Venter, who is known for being one of the pioneers in sequencing the human genome, was addressing a session titled 'The Software of Life' at the summit.

Medanta Medicity founder-chairman Dr Naresh Trehan, who was chairing the session, said that 'electrifying' and 'maddening' were the two adjectives used for describing the influential biologist today. Dr Venter, true to his reputation, began his address by focusing on the issues concerning the urgency and importance of synthetic biology.

Pointing out that one billion people would be added to earth's population in the next 11 years, he quipped, "India and China together form 36% of world population right now. Soon, India will overtake China at least in population."

Dr Venter pointed out that additional resources would be required for the increasing population, and the administration would have to look at new ways to provide them with fuel, water and food. "The current state of agriculture can't support the increasing number of people and we need new ways to capture energy and make fuel."

This is where synthetic genome comes into the picture, he said. This branch of biology can be used not only for feeding billions of people, but also creating green energy and medicines. Genomics could end the fear of pandemics too, he added.

Relating his journey so far, Dr Venter said, "While we were successful in sequencing the first genome in 1995, we were able to scale to first human genome in the next five years."

When Dr Trehan asked him to comment on the possibility of the science getting hijacked and being used for devious purposes, Dr Venter conceded that it was a critical question. However, he said that the "concerns of it getting into the wrong hands are not any more than the emergence of new flu strains and diseases almost every day".

He also debunked the theory that genomics involved "playing with nature".

"People get confused and concerned when it comes to the energy we create and the food we eat. But there's nothing natural about the food we eat. The tomatoes that people in the United States get so excited about are not real either. The real tomato is green, and the size of my thumb," the expert said.

Dr Venter said that to solve the problems looming over the planet, people need "more intelligent processes instead of just fears".


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