Craig Venter, Geneticist/Author, Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life
Related Story: Craig Venter And Life At The Speed of Light
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: A discussion about the frontiers of biological science usually separates people into two groups. Those who are fascinated by the possibilities of probing deeper into the mechanics of life and those who fear what could happen if we go too far. On which side of that divide you find yourself? The work of Craig Venter should be of unique interest. Dr. Venter is famous for sequencing the human genome. He also led a team of scientists to create the first cell with a synthetic genome. He's founder and CEO of the Venter Institute and synthetic genomics both here in San Diego. Craig Venter's new book is called life at the speed of light. And Dr. Venter, welcome to the program.
CRAIG VENTER: Thanks great to be with you.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: One of the central points of your book as I understand it is knowledge about how DNA sequencing can be combined with computer binary code writing digitized biology pre-the only reason that I opened with a question that complexes because I know your explanation will make it clearer. So, tell us how the two can work together.
CRAIG VENTER: Well the genetic code is just for A, C, G, T. When we read the code we are putting into computer we converted to the ones and zeros I'm calling it digitizing biology and we've been doing that now for, the first genome was done in 1977 for a small virus.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: It's already being done and it's already begun at least, so far now that this could work for creating a flu vaccine, is the right question
CRAIG VENTER: Now we're going the other way. We are starting with the ones and zeros in learning how to write the genetic code and that is what we reported in 2010 with the first synthetic so with a completely chemically made genome. You're right now we are applying that to try and take the flu vaccine. Quickly. I could go into more detail on that if you wish.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Please do.
CRAIG VENTER: People might remember the H1N1 pandemic there was not a vaccine available until two months after the pandemic had peaked it takes a long time to make a vaccine so working with Novartis and the US government we applied the synthetic DNA approaches, the ability to write the genetic code to rapidly make new vaccine stocks, and so we can now do this in less than 12 hours in this got a real world test with the outbreak of H19 7 and nine strain in China. The Chinese sequenced it, posted it on the Internet at the request of the US government we downloaded it, the digital information and converted them back into the DNA code. For quite a while this was the only source of that age 7 and nine virus that the city had that the government had and Novartis said to start making the vaccine so we are trying to change the time course presenting the information digitally, converting it back into DNA so instead of trying to get the virus strain of China through all the regulations and problems we just got this digital code and so the future what I am prescribing the book is that we can send biology through the Internet. Printing the future we will be able to actually download vaccines in your own home with the ability to do this we can stave off any new pandemic.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And is this what the use of the digital biological converter
CRAIG VENTER: Exactly that is what we use for interpreting the digital code and remaking biology print
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, how different is this kind of digital biology than the kind of science you did when you and your team developed the first synthetic genome? I mean it is a step beyond.
CRAIG VENTER: What we did then is the prototypical experiment to prove that it's possible and we actually chemically made the entire 1.1 million letter genome and booted up in a cell to create the first synthetic cell but it was starting with digital information Sylvia was always in our own lab where we read the genome and digitize it and went from the digital information back to create the genome, but now because of the rapid interchange between the DNA world and the digital world we can think of for example it would only take a fraction of a second to send a new vaccine completely around the world. And if you had one of these conversion boxes you'd be able to make the vaccine. Quickly.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I've read articles where the conversion boxes are being likened to a 3-D printer is it something like that?
CRAIG VENTER: It's the same kind of concept three printers are based on taking digital designs and printing that in the plastic or printing them in metal in this case we are actually using a different kind of machine to actually write the generator code starting with four chemicals, representing that a some CG, so simplifies are versus the printer but it's the same thing started with digital information and creating something physical that.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You see some fantastic applications for something like this when it comes to space travel and looking for, or examining life on other planets.
CRAIG VENTER: Well it's a great example of the difference between sending something physically versus sending something as a digital magnetic wave. So the problem with sample return from Mars is getting a rocket up there big enough that can blastoff from Mars with samples and even so the journey is a very long journey fully sequenced DNA on Mars we can send it back in as little as 4.3 min. to earth when Mars and Earth are at the closest, re-create the DNA in the lab and potentially re-create the Martian organisms in the lab. So it's an example showing what the time and distance challenges change what we are dealing with digital biology versus trying to physically send an entity.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now you are working, you're doing the first steps with NASA about whether or not something like this would be possible, is that right?
CRAIG VENTER: That's right we are set up to do the first test experiment first nearby in the Mojave desert until the government shutdown so we pushed back until next month but we are testing the sending unit where we take a sample under, isolate the DNA, sequence the DNA and send it up to the cloud. We will be doing that experiment with NASA very soon and then the digital biological converter takes additional information from the cloud and remakes the organism. So we will be testing both the digital biological converter we have support from DA RPA to help with that but it's basically funded by my company synthetic genomics.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: where would this be done? You wouldn't have an ordinary lab with a little Martian cell in there, I mean would it be done really controlled circumstances?
CRAIG VENTER: There are international regulations on samples from space you are probably too young to remember but when the astronauts came back from the boat they were, even though they splashdown into the ocean they were put into these little mobile quarantine trailers for a couple weeks to make sure they did bring back some strange thing. If they did it was a little too late they were already contaminating everything, but we're not talking about something splashing down on earth we are talking about digital information we could do NAP for spacesuit facility so under maximum containment versus the Andromeda Strain where it splashes down and contaminates everything.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Craig Venter his latest book is called life at the speed of light. Wondering Dr. Venter does it bother you that your work into what you call the software of life make some people fearful?
CRAIG VENTER: It's disturbing that it does, but a recent poll has shown that 50% of people don't realize that tomatoes have DNA. So it is difficult to start an intelligent conversation when the fundamental biological knowledge is so limited. So, it means our education system has really failed people. So if you don't realize that tomatoes have DNA, talking about synthetic DNA and creating new things could obviously so fearful to people, versus as I describe in the book, every living organism including humans on this planet, we are DNA, software driven machines. So, a changes little bit if you understand the breadth of biology a lot more. We are not talking about creating new versions of Martians. We've been exchanging material with Mars for billions of years up to 100 kg of material per year. So if we find life on Mars and its different from what is on her that would be very surprising you cannot take a scoop of Earth here without having particles of arsenic. So I think it's a matter of people getting somehow the fundamental information there are important discussions to have and we've been asking difficult ethical discussions before anybody else did and asking for review before we did the first experiment following up when we had the announcement in 2010 president Obama as the new bioethics commission to take this on as their number one charge so we've been trying to deal with the public openly. That is a reason to write books, to help people understand this and to speak on shows like yours but it is a challenge when you started such a deficit with the education system.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: It is of course can produce that kind of fear but there are also concerns from people who do know the signs that things are moving perhaps just a little too quickly. And I wonder how you respond to that kind of a challenge or criticism.
CRAIG VENTER: I think the American public should be outraged things are moving 10 times faster the amount of money that we have available to science in this country is tremendous. We have no shortage is we just don't spend it very wisely. The governments become very risk-averse with its funding. A notable exception is DARPA the only fund I predict a number of funding protecting health and welfare would change very dramatically so instead of being afraid it is going too fast they should wanted to go faster so we can solve diseases and change lives.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Wouldn't it be more prudent to study the genomic structure to really understand it's intricacies because I was interested in readinga book and listening to the other interviews that there are a lot of things about the way that the structure works, the way DNA interacts with each other that is still really not fully understood so when it makes sense to understand that all until we try to create our own?
CRAIG VENTER: It would be nice if that was the case I think the fastest way we are going to understand the parts of biology that we don't is through synthetic life and doing trial and error construction of these things to sort out when these genes do. Minimal so we are trying to construct there are about 50 genes of unknown function these are across evolution you cannot get a grant to study an unknown gene because if you did not know the answer that's why we know so little about the breadth of biology is we can get money to study things you don't know to get a government grant you basically have to know the answer to the question that you are posting so that it is not a risky grant that is being awarded. So finding what these 50 genes doing this is a minimal so is going to happen orders of back into faster because we are trying to design life around it.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Is that because even though you said a moment ago that there's a lot of money to be used for research and a lot of money is spent on various things that there's not enough going to basic research
CRAIG VENTER: Basic research and really fundamental questions. We don't want to and knowledge that we are still in this purple phase of biology. We are discovery, expedition, just searching the unknown is a key part of where we are, the scientific establishment tries to treated like we know almost everything and you have to ask a novel question about it. Our ocean expedition, the sorcerer expedition we discovered over 90% of genes known to science off the deck of a (inaudible) but by taking samples of ocean water and sequencing with new sequencing techniques the existing thought was that there was not much diversity in the ocean, so we need to be able to have more empirical studies, more orderly are in the expeditions just to study the unknown we do not know at all and pretending we do is really dangerous for science.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let me go back to the digital biological converter for a moment because another thing I heard that I could not quite wrap my mind around tell me if this is right what you are dancing with the humans are twice removed from the process, is that
CRAIG VENTER: I have not heard it described that way, but what we have is a robot that is driven by the computer for synthesizing pieces of DNA to get to all the other stages because they have lots of the front of my book I dedicated to the 46 scientists that it took to do this over the four-year period, these are dedicated teams, a specialist that you will not find anywhere else in the world so it is a unique team, unique capabilities and it is hard work, so it is not so trivial as you just have a robot doing now, but at the same time we are trying to get it so that robotically you could download insulin from Internet. You could download a vaccine in the future. A lot of people have seen the movie contagion, we don't want to see the movie play out in real life but it did it 1918 three percent of the world's population were killed by a flu virus that could easily happen more easily now because there are three times as many people on the planet than the year I was born so in my life the population has increased threefold and it's going to go over another 10 billion people more people, faster transportation, more poverty that's going to lead to newly emerging infections we have to find new cures, treatments and the ability to deal with them quickly or we are all in peril.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What is your greatest fear about the turn this research might take?
CRAIG VENTER: Nobody wants to see their research breakthroughs used for harm and everything is modern silence, almost every discovery is what is called dual use technology. So you could use the same technology to make a vaccine or a new by antimicrobial or use it to try to harm people, the reality and we've been funded by the Sloan foundation along with MIT and held a series of workshops to look at the security aspects and the risks it may not be super comforting but somebody could easily get anthrax by going to almost any forum with a (inaudible). You don't have to have the most experience scientist in the world to manufacturing for you but there is always that concern. And as we can download and send biology through the Internet we obviously have people that try and send computer viruses to control, destroy computer systems we do not want them to send real viruses so the computer screens, the biological security, you know, perhaps even the regulation, we don't know how that is going to work. Maybe it will be like CPAP machine civility should be regulated you have to have a prescription from a doctor to buy one. Maybe you would have one to get that additional biological converter to download insulin we don't know how this is going to play out but it's a chance of changing medicine, changing how we spend, send new information, new vaccine, new cures around the globe very quickly. And make it much more accessible to the world population.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to let everyone know that Craig Venter's latest book is called life at the speed of light from the double helix to the dawn of digital life. Dr. Venter will be speaking about his book tonight at 78 UC San Diego's Press Ctr., East ballroom. Thank you so much.
CRAIG VENTER: It's a pleasure to be with you.