Craig Venter: Pushing Biotechnological Boundaries

Scientist Craig Venter is close to creating world's first artificial life form.

Nov. 29, 2007 — -- Craig Venter is having what he called his "biggest year in science." He is a scientist, a sailor and more than anything else, a revolutionary. Many have never heard of him, but he's the man shaping your future.

"Science is really trying to understand life at its most basic level," he said. "And to me nothing else has mattered. I mean the best facts that we can get and the truth."

The truths Venter has uncovered are historic. He was at the forefront of decoding the human genome and he's recently become the first person in history to publish his entire genome on the Internet.

And now he is on the verge of another historic breakthrough -- creating the world's first artificial life form.

At his laboratory in La Jolla, Calif., Venter and his team are creating a new species, made not by nature, but by man.

Creating 'Life From Scratch'?

"We're creating a new chromosome chemically in the lab from scratch that will result in altering an existing living cell to create a new species, a new variation of life," he said.

Venter and his team have manufactured a simple chromosome, a sequence of genes and proteins, a new strand of DNA, that they will put into a cell. The cell will divide and a new life form, a bacterium, will have been created.

"We're not creating life from scratch in the test tube," he said. "We're creating new life forms by creating new versions of the genetic code."

So what will this new life form do? Fuel your car. Or your home. Another might scrub the skies of greenhouse gases.

"We have some biological fuel cells that can live off of human waste," he said. "Produce clean water and produce electricity. So bacterium life forms are far beyond what we commonly view life in terms of human terms."

It's an astonishing prospect -- the cutting edge of biotechnology. Creating life forms to fuel and clean the planet. A new era.

However, we've seen similar progress in the past. And it is well known that triumphs of science can be used for good -- or evil. In Venter's case, there is some fear that he's opening Pandora's box.

'A Little Competition' Is Good

"Pandora's box got opened a long time ago by having a field of knowledge," said Venter, "and knowledge can be dangerous in the wrong hands. Putting a loaded gun in the hand of somebody that has evil intention is very different than somebody trying to feed their family by shooting deer. It doesn't matter what the technology is, people can use it for illicit purposes."

Venter has been pushing the boundaries of biotechnology for years now.

He burst into the headlines for helping to map the human genome -- a historic achievement announced at the White House by President Clinton in June of 2000.

"Without a doubt, this is the most important, most wondrous map ever produced by humankind," said the former president.

It was a grand occasion, but the triumph at the White House masked a nasty dispute.

Venter's was one of two separate teams of researchers that decoded the genome. His was a privately funded, corporate effort. The other was the publicly funded Human Genome Project.

It was a race, a competition, and Venter played for keeps.

"Scientists in biology have never had billion-dollar programs before," he said. "So a small group of scientists had billions of dollars of taxpayer money to do things and anything that threatened that, any person that threatened that became an instant enemy."

Venter also believes that some competition is a good thing.

"A little competition should enter in all phases of science," he said. "We'd probably move it ahead a whole lost faster."

Venter in Vietnam: 'The University of Death'

Venter started out slowly. A California kid who loved surfing a lot more than school, he barely graduated. Then came what he calls "the university of death": Vietnam.

Enlisting in the Navy, Venter was sent to the hospital in Da Nang.

"I was 20 years old," Venter recalled. "Plucked off my surfboard and end up at a war. And all of sudden, all you deal with night and day is people being killed or maimed and at the same time, the discussions about why we were there and the rationalities of all different people, as I said, respond in different ways."

One response: suicide. Venter said he attempted it.

"I was actually frustrated with the constant death of young people around me. I decided that I wanted to get away from it, so I decided to go swim out in the sea and had an encounter with a shark that changed my mind."

So he lived. And that life, Venter's life, has now been decoded, you might say. Twice.

He's written his autobiography, called "A Life Decoded."

But he's also the first person in history to publish his own genome -- his genetic blueprint -- for all the world to see online.

"I'm trying to teach people they don't need to be afraid of their genetic code," he said. He said that he doesn't feel like his privacy has been compromised.

Revealing His Own Genetic Code

"In fact, I said I'm far more concerned about publishing my autobiography than I am about my genetic code. I think it's far more revealing."

The rush to decode everyone's genome for profit is for a lot of people a little scary.

Venter said it's a fact of the future. Get used to it.

"I think we need protection against abuses in hiring and employment based on the genetic code. Because of the cost of health insurance now, more and more companies are self-insuring. You don't want them to, out of ignorance, say, 'Well, because you have a genetic predestination of breast cancer, we're not going to hire you, because we self-insure. We know you're going to cost more than somebody that doesn't.'"

These are all uncharted waters, you might say. Revealing the hidden truths in the human genome, creating new species.

And we are all, like it or not, bound for this brave new world. And right now, Venter has the wheel.