Titan banking on green dream

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 March, 2012, 12:00am


Genomic titan Dr J. Craig Venter told a Hong Kong audience last week that he had no intention to recreate extinct species, instead, he only wished to help protect the environment with synthetic genomics.

Venter, whose creation of the first living cell with synthetic DNA has been hailed a scientific landmark, said he only wanted to design bacterial cells that would produce medicines and fuels, and even absorb greenhouse gases.

'We can't provide sufficient food, water, energy, housing, medicine, for the 7 billion people now. How are we going to do it in 12 years for 8 billion or 10 billion people?' the 76-year-old biologist and billionaire entrepreneur from Utah said.

The man, also known for his role in the human genome project, was in town on Thursday to receive an honorary doctorate in science from the University of Hong Kong for his 'contributions to medical research and society'. His lecture, entitled 'From reading to writing the genetic code', filled two halls at HKU.

'With the increase of industrialisation in China and many different parts of the world, this is not sustainable. So we need disruptive changes to solve all these problems.

'And I think synthetic biology, or synthetic genomics, is going to be one of the contributing disruptive changes that gives us a chance to try and do something,' he said.

Vilified by the scientific community for the ethical issues his research entails, he said tailor-made bacteria could 'create a new industrial revolution'. He gave an example. 'When we look at agriculture, agriculture developed along with humanity, humanity evolved because of agriculture. It's an incredibly inefficient system.

'Much of the US [biofuels] system is based on corn, which produces about 18 gallons per acre per year. Oil pumps produces about 600 gallons. But the goal of using algae is to get it to 10,000 to 15,000 gallons. We have the potential to change what we do by perhaps eliminating agriculture largely as we know it and going into far more efficient things.'

ExxonMobil is a US$600 million sponsor of Venter's algae biofuels experiments, testing whether large-scale quantities of affordable fuel can be produced from algae.

'If you wanted to eliminate all the transport fuels and do it based on corn oil, it would take a facility three times the size of the continent of the US. If we are going to do it based on algae, we will take a facility maybe half the size of Nevada or Arizona, which I've argued would be a really good use of Nevada,' he said.

Asked if it would be possible 'to build a Jurassic Park' and whether genes could build and reproduce themselves, he said: 'I'm delighted to see people's imaginations working, but right now we are more limited by our imaginations than by science.

'Lots of people have proposed this because genomes are being sequenced from ancient species, including Neanderthals, and we should try to reconstruct Neanderthals and woolly mammoths. My claim is that we have enough Neanderthals on the planet already, particularly in Washington right now,' said the man who has been dubbed 'the dazzling showman of science'.

'On a serious note, a lot of people think we can save species from becoming extinct by trying to recreate them from their DNA, but at the rate that species are going extinct and by the complexity of the biology of each particular one, the biology has to have a unique solution for each species. To count on regenerating extinct animals from sequenced genomes, I'm not too enthusiastic about it. We had better change the environment to keep the species that we have,' he said. Many food firms were studying whether 'by controlling your diet, you control the microbes in your environment, and therefore changing disease outcomes', he said.

The citation at the ceremony on Friday said: 'Venter is one of the most remarkable biologists of our time. Many famous scientists find their place in history for having made one outstanding discovery, but Craig Venter stands apart in that he has made not just one remarkable discovery but several. Once described as a 'maverick wizard', his bold and at times disruptive thinking, combined with his startling creativity, have assured him long-term acclamation.

'Craig has been responsible for extending the boundaries of known science. In particular, his novel conceptual approach to deciphering the human genome and in creating synthetic life make him stand apart from other scientists. The maverick wizard is in truth a giant.'

Myanmar's democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, Peking University botany professor Xu Zhihong, and University of Cambridge medicine professor Leszek Krzysztof Borysiewicz also received awards at the same ceremony on Friday.

Venter and his team continue to blaze new trails in genomics, the university says, including the creation of the first self-replicating bacterial cell constructed with synthetic DNA.

He began his tertiary education after serving a tour of duty in Vietnam, and obtained his undergraduate and doctorate degrees from the University of California, San Diego.

Having taught and pursued research at the State University of New York and the Roswell Park Cancer Institute, in 1984 he moved to the National Institute of Health campus where he began studying genes.

His work with member scientists at his J. Craig Venter Institute led to the creation of the first self-replicating bacteria cell constructed entirely of synthetic DNA: in other words he is the first to create synthetic life.

In his 95-foot yacht Sorcerer II, he also personally led the Global Ocean Sampling Expedition to help map the ocean's biodiversity.

In addition to the not-for-profit institute, Venter co-founded Synthetic Genomics Inc, a firm with the provocative mission to construct synthetic genomes to develop improved products such as clean fuels and biochemicals with the aim of reducing fossil fuel dependence and environmental degradation.

In 2008, he received the National Medal of Science, the highest honour the US bestows on its scientists. Time magazine has also twice named him as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.