Scientist J. Craig Venter says synthetic cells create the potential to solve huge problems
Most scientists are satisfied if they make one earth-shattering discovery that transforms the world. Not J. Craig Venter, the maverick U.S. researcher who led the charge to map the human genome in 2000.
Last year, the J. Craig Venter Institute announced that it had accomplished the “successful construction of the first self-replicating, synthetic bacterial cell”. Somewhat like the fictional Dr. Frankenstein, Venter’s lab created a new organism by synthesizing DNA from one bacterium and installing it in another.
“We heard from the pope and the president on the same day,” Venter told the New York Times afterward.
The creation of the first synthetic cell is part of a bigger objective: thwarting the progression of climate change through the creation of biofuels, which would include these synthetic cells.
He’s received $600 million in funding from ExxonMobil to make this happen. In a phone interview with the Georgia Straight from Washington, D.C., Venter explained that it’s “theoretically possible” that this research could help end U.S. dependence on oil imports.
Keep in mind that the U.S. consumes about 20 million barrels of oil a day, with about 60 percent coming from other countries. The implications for the U.S. economy and national security are breathtaking.
“Taking coal out of the ground and oil out of the ground and burning it puts massive amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere,” Venter said. “If we can replace those fuels with what’s actually made out of carbon dioxide, we can shift that equilibrium eventually—and at least slow down the rate of damage that we’re doing to our environment. It really depends on how fast these things can be adopted.”
He added that synthetic cells create opportunities to design not only new sources of fuel, but also new chemicals, food, and other products to meet the needs of a rapidly rising global population.
So he’s mapped the genome and showed the world how to create a new organism. But that’s not all. Venter has also discovered six million genes by travelling in his luxurious schooner across oceans, including the waters off the coast of B.C.
When he started doing this work in 2003, he said, there were only a million known genes. (Of those, about 20,000 are in human beings.)
“Most of the genes known to science have been discovered off the deck of a sailboat,” he noted.
What makes his accomplishments even more remarkable is that he nearly flunked out of junior high school.
“I was bored and was basically turned off by the education system, so I rebelled in my own way,” he admitted. “I think my career gives hope to a lot of parents.”
On Tuesday (May 3), Venter will give a free lecture at the Vogue Theatre as part of the Peter Wall Downtown Lecture Series, which is presented by the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies. A significant part of the talk will focus on the impact of the human genome on health outcomes, paying particular attention to new research concerning bacteria in the human body.
The Human Microbiome Project, overseen by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, is a five-year project that began in 2008 to identify and characterize microorganisms in healthy and diseased people.
Venter’s lab has done the same type of shotgun sequencing of microbes in the human intestine that it has performed on bugs in the oceans. He said he plans to talk about several chemicals in the bloodstream during his Vancouver lecture, and how about 50 of those originate from bacterial metabolites.
“It’s a whole new area of science,” he said. “There is no way we could have completely understood how humans could function physiologically without being able to understand all these new components that have just been discovered in this past decade, based on genomics.”
He also mentioned that there are twice as many bacterial cells as human cells in the body. Scientists are learning how the microbiome is linked to a growing list of diseases, Venter emphasized.
As an example, he said that in the past, the medical community believed that alcohol had a toxic effect on the liver. In fact, the primary toxicity arises from the effect of alcohol on bacteria living in the body. These microbes produce a poisonous substance that harms the liver.
He also raised the possibility that some cases of Alzheimer’s disease could be linked to a toxic algae, which is eaten by fish. He said it’s conceivable that there could be a bacterial component to asthma and many other diseases.
However, he said, most of these microbes are probably beneficial and some are essential to sustain human life.
“When they get out of whack or if our immune system is compromised, their effects manifest as an infectious disease,” Venter stated. “We don’t seem to have enough new antibiotics coming up”¦in the various pharmaceutical companies to stay ahead of all the resistance that bacteria have. So I think therapeutic vaccines will be one of the most rapidly advancing areas.”
Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.