Science's Lady Gaga clone rocks HKU

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 16 March, 2012, 12:00am

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Craig Venter is one of the world's most influential and wealthiest scientists. As a self-promoter, he has been called the Lady Gaga of science. It's often difficult to separate the hype from the reality. So it wasn't surprising when he delivered a lecture yesterday on his scientific career that the hall at the University of Hong Kong was packed. Undergraduates flocked to see him like 'the little monsters' who trail his fellow American celebrity.

In 2010, newspaper headlines screamed 'playing God' and 'creating new life forms'. What happened was that Venter and his team had synthesised the entire genome of a bacterium and inserted it into a similar species emptied of its own original DNA. The bacterium with the foreign genome started following its new genetic instructions. Each of these steps had been done before. What was novel was that Venter's team did a cut-and-paste job, putting synthetic DNA into a pre-existing organism.

Most of the advances the billionaire geneticist and his scientific associates made in the past decade were significant, but they usually fell short of their claims. In 2007, Venter had his own DNA sequenced. It was great publicity, but it also heralded a new era of individualised medicine that caters to the genetic peculiarities of each patient. Genetics-based medicine was implemented in the cancer treatment of Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple.

Venter's greatest contribution is, without doubt, the competition he introduced against the publicly funded human genome project (HGP) more than a decade ago, using his then novel 'shotgun method' to blast the DNA into tiny pieces and supercomputers to put the bits of sequences back together. That saved much time and money and helped complete a landmark in humankind's self-understanding. Just for that, we should be grateful to him. And it was a good thing the US government would not allow him to patent his HGP data.