On May 20 this year, world-renowned scientist Dr J Craig Venter and his team made history by synthetically creating a living, self-replicating cell for the first time. Venter is one of the leading scientists of the 21st century for his numerous invaluable contributions to genome research. He talks about the experience and what he thinks of ‘playing god’.
What do you think of people who are saying this research is very dangerous and it’s like man trying to play god?
Well, it tells me that people you know just don’t know a whole lot about science. But yeah there is always a chance that somebody could use this technology to try and harm people, but that’s been reviewed several times now in the US, and people have agreed that it’s a relatively minor increase in any danger.
This is a powerful tool. It’s going to start a new revolution in the human history. What do you think about that?
Well, I hope that’s true. In Latin America, you are more aware of this than other parts of the world with the rapidly expanding population. We’re soon going to have 9 billion on the planet, and we don’t have the ability to provide sufficient food, clean water, medicine and energy for the existing 6.8 billion. So we need a new revolution of technology to enable us to survive on the planet without destroying it.
What if this synthetic bacterial cell is used for military purposes?
As with the cell that we created, there’s essentially no risk with it at all. It’s a lab strain. It wouldn’t have any uses like that whatsoever, no.
Ten years ago you were at the White House presenting the research on the human genome project. How did that project help in this research?
Well, there was almost no connection between the two at all. And this is the research on the synthetic cell we started in 1995. And we stopped it for a couple of years while I sequenced the human genome. So some of the technology that we developed for the synthetic, in fact, is what led us to quickly being able to sequence the human genome. So it’s the other way around. Our research helped get the human genome in less than one year.
Do you think the people have not seen the practical benefit of the human genome project yet?
I think it’s mostly affected research and new discoveries; the main benefits will take longer to achieve. The cost of sequencing has gone way down over the past 10 years. It cost the U.S. government about $3 billion for the first draft of the human genome. Now it’s more like $10,000. So it’s getting cheaper all the time. Once it gets maybe ten times cheaper, then it will be widely accessible to people everywhere to get their genetic code sequenced.
What do you think about the critics of your work with the genome project?
Back then with the human genome project, the critics were all proven wrong. And every lab in the world now uses the technology that my team developed that they were initially critical about, that a few people were. So that criticism’s all gone away, and even the critics now use the methods that we developed. So I think that’s an issue that’s gone away quite a while ago. But every time there’s something new in science, the scientific community is very conservative and competitive, so when somebody comes up with something new, people naturally criticise if they don’t understand it, or if they’re competing against it.
How do you live with this competition? Before the genome project and after, how did you deal with the critics?
Well, you know I feel very lucky to be a scientist who’s been able, with my teams, to make all these major breakthroughs. And as you know from reporting, anytime there’s a breakthrough in area of human endeavor, that’s important, whether it’s politics or art or science, there are always critics. So I think it’s something that anybody that’s successful in the world has to learn how to deal with critics and not let them control your life.
So the fortunate thing is, I have great colleagues to work with, and it’s been very exciting. And I think the world’s excited about our breakthroughs.
Your last achievement implied a lot of philosophical things for many people.
I think that’s an exciting part. I’ve been very pleased to see that, because it is a philosophical as well as a scientific breakthrough, because it helps us understand the basic fundamentals about life. So I think we all learned a great deal by making synthetic cells, it tells us how life works at the most basic levels. That without DNA, there is no life. So you know these small bacterial cells are software-driven biological machines. I think that’s an important concept and view of things, affecting people, whether they’re scientists or not.
And what is your next goal?
Well, each time I make a breakthrough, people tell me, ‘Well, you can’t possibly do anything bigger.’ But we want to use this technology to try and solve some of the problems for the planet. So we’re trying to see if we can engineer algae to make new sources of fuel, possibly new sources of food. We are already trying to make vaccines against the flu virus, where we can make those very quickly. So the goal is now to use this technology to try and increase the benefits for humanity.
For more see J. Craig Venter on Discovery Science on 27 July, 8pm