Venter shares his motivations for research and how his push for speed, creativity, and collaboration has put his group at the forefront of synthetic genomics.
Presented by the Helen Edison Lecture Series. Portions of the audio interview were provided by UCSD TV. To watch the full interview, see their coverage.
Breakthroughs, Building Blocks, and a Synthetic Bacterium
By Jennifer Park | UTS Staff Writer | SQ Online (2013-14)
J. Craig Venter brought science fiction to life when he manufactured the entire genome of a bacterium. He became the first person to create synthetic life. Venter, founder of The Institute for Genomic Research, discussed the implications of his research presented in his latest book, Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life.
Venter did not intend on a research career throughout most his life. He described himself as an athletic surfer in Southern California who found himself in Vietnam as a foreman. Practicing jungle medicine and surgery ignited his passion for the medical science and led him to enroll at UC San Diego to work towards medical school.
He discovered his passion for research as an undergraduate playing around with heart cells in a lab. Since then he has worked at and headed multiple national research institutions and pioneered the field of genomics.
“The capacity to blunder slightly is the real marvel of DNA. Without this special attribute we would still be anaerobic bacteria. We are DNA software machines,” said Venter in his opening response.
Venter started by narrating his path to revolutionizing the field of synthetic biology. In 2010, his research group took the base pair sequence of a bacterium’s DNA, synthesized a long DNA molecule containing this exact sequence, and created synthetic life by injecting this DNA into another cell.
In the latter half of the event, Venter answered questions from the audience. Photo by Jennifer Park
This was the first time that life was created, and it simply took the base pair sequences of the bacterium’s genes. Venter’s innovation spawned a host of possibilities. Scientists across the world have always been able to digitize DNA sequences and transmit the information through the web. The difference now is that the scientists that receive this information have the ability to synthesize actual life from the code. This tool has practical and powerful applications.
For instance, with synthetic biology, Venter’s institute solved the recent H7N9 epidemic in China without having to physically go to China to take samples and transport them back to the United States. Through public viral gene sequences by the Chinese CDC, the J. Craig Venter Institute was able to synthesize the genes of the H7N9 virus for the US CDC to evaluate and develop a synthetic vaccine against it.
This kind of revolutionary technology allows massive improvements to traditional methods of disease response. Now, any organization around the world can work on developing vaccine responses and, once the vaccine is created, use technology to rapidly distribute it.
“UC San Diego affected my path as an undergraduate,” said Venter, “I started in a new direction where you could ask basic questions about life and get answers. It was very rewarding to me.”
As a proven innovator, Venter looks to continue new research in the field of synthetic biology to solve global problems.