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Designing life: What's next for J. Craig Venter?

J. Craig Venter: Designing Life 13:15

This story was first published on Nov. 21, 2010. It was updated on June 12, 2011.

For generations, scientists have wrestled with the idea of creating new forms of life in the laboratory. Now that age is upon us.

The latest milestone occurred last year when microbiologist J. Craig Venter announced that a team of his scientists had created a synthetic bacteria designed on a computer, with man-made DNA. The announcement was greeted with a mixture of praise, skepticism and rancor, which is familiar territory for Venter.

He is one of the most famous scientists in the world, known for his pioneering work in deciphering the human genetic code. But as we reported last fall, he is also one of the most controversial - an iconoclast with a brilliant mind and an outsized ego who has flaunted the conventional wisdom, and tweaked the staid scientific establishment at every turn.

You don't have to spend much time with Venter to understand that he likes to go fast, as "60 Minutes" correspondent Steve Kroft found out first-hand when the scientist took Kroft for a spin in his Aston Martin.

Venter is an adrenaline junky, whose willingness to take big risks has led to bold scientific breakthroughs. And he is not exactly shy about touting those achievements.

Asked where he would rank himself in terms of scientific accomplishments, Venter told Kroft, "Well, in the field of genomics, I think the record is pretty clear cut: the first genome in history, the first draft of the human genome, the first complete version of the human genome. And having the first synthetic cells."

"So, the answer to the question is pretty high?" Kroft asked.

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"I mean it's really hard to assess that yourself. But I think the teams that we have, and what we've accomplished are certainly amongst the biggest discoveries in modern science," Venter said.

If you have some stereotype of a scientist in your mind, Venter probably doesn't fit it. He has scuba-dived with sharks to gather microbes in the Pacific, and spent much of the past summer sailing through the Greek isles on his 95-foot research vessel, plucking new genetic material from the sea. He rarely goes anywhere without his wife, Heather, and their dog Darwin. And their home high above the Pacific in La Jolla, Calif., suggests the quest for scientific truth requires no vow of poverty.

"I have been lucky," Venter acknowledged. "Sort of the accidental millionaire in terms of people keep giving me money to start companies to exploit the science."

He runs both a privately-held biotech company called Synthetic Genomics, and a non-profit research lab, the J. Craig Venter Institute. Together, they employ more than 500 people on two coasts, including one Nobel laureate, Hamilton Smith, and some of the top scientists in the world.

"I'm much more like an orchestra conductor than the violinist," Venter said.

When asked what he thinks his greatest talent is, Venter said, "I have an unusual type of thinking. I have no visual memory whatsoever. Everything is conceptual to me. So I think that's part of it. I see things differently."

Venter likes to think big, and his latest advancement is no exception. He removed a Petri dish from an incubator in his lab and held it up to the light, revealing small dark specks of bacteria.

"This is the first synthetic species," Venter told Kroft.

"And how long did it take you to make this?" Kroft asked.

"Well, if you count the total time from the conception, about 15 years," Venter replied.

The project cost about $40 million over that time period, Venter told Kroft.

In practical terms, what Venter's team has created is about as useful as the mold that grows in a bachelor's refrigerator, but scientifically it is a milestone. The bacteria, which is similar to one found in the intestines of goats, was designed on a computer, manufactured in the laboratory, and gets its genetic instructions from a synthetic chromosome made by man, not nature.

"It's alive and self-replicating. That means it can indefinitely grow and make copies of itself," Venter explained.

Asked if he designed it to do anything in particular, Venter said, "No. We designed this just to see if we could do this whole experiment using synthetic DNA. And now that we know we can do it, it's worth the effort to now make the things that could be valuable."

Just how valuable remains to be seen, but Venter believes this is the first baby step in a biological revolution: one, in which it will be possible to custom design and re-program bacteria and other organisms to churn out new medicines, foods, and clean sources of energy.

"What you're doing is programming cells like somebody would program software," Kroft remarked.

"DNA is the software of life. There's no question about it," Venter replied. "And the key to evolution of life on this planet and now to the key to the future of life on this planet is understanding how to write that software."

"So, you see bioengineered fuel for example?" Kroft asked.

"I see in the future, bioengineered almost everything you can imagine that we use," Venter said.

Asked how far off some of this is, Venter said, "The first things will start to come out in the next few years. I think possibly next year's flu vaccine could come from these synthetic DNA processes. Instead of months to make a new vaccine each year, we could do it in 24 hours or less."

He has already signed a contract with a major pharmaceutical firm to try and do it. BP is funding research to experiment with underground microbes that feed off coal and produce natural gas. And Exxon Mobil has committed $300 million to Venter's company to genetically enhance an algae that lives off carbon dioxide and produces an oil that can be refined into gasoline.

"So you're trying to cut down on CO2 in the atmosphere, which people believe causes global warming and also create a fuel?" Kroft asked, while touring Venter's greenhouse, which is filled with bags of algae under study.

"The question is on the scale that it needs to be done at. You know? Facilities the size of San Francisco," Venter said.

Venter and his team are not the only players in this growing field known as "synthetic biology." For years, DuPont has been using genetically modified bacteria to make a compound used in clothing and carpets; Amyris discovered a way to genetically modify yeast to produce an anti-malarial drug; and another company, LS9, has altered the genes of E. coli bacteria to produce fuel. But all of these companies are modifying a few genes, not designing all of them.

Venter's rivals say his method is commercially impractical. But he has made a career out of bucking the scientific establishment, and earned lots of enemies with his brash behavior and his knack for grabbing research money and the spotlight.

When Kroft asked Venter what his faults are, he replied, "Probably impatience is the biggest one. I don't suffer fools too well. I'm not going to ever win a political contest."

"A lot of people have said you're a self promoter, an egomaniac?" Kroft asked. "True? Partially true? Not true at all?"

"You know, if we hold a press conference it's considered self-promotion," Venter said. "But, somebody at a university, the university holds the press conference, and that's not self promotion."

"Overly ambitious?" Kroft asked.

"I'm sure I'm very guilty of that," Venter replied.

That wasn't always the case. He grew up in the suburbs of San Francisco as the prototypical surfer dude and a classic underachiever.

"I was a horrible student. I really hated school," he remembered.

Asked if he was good in math and science, Venter said, "I was not really good in anything, you know? I almost flunked out of high school."

He did get a college scholarship for swimming. "But I didn't take it," Venter said. "So at age 17, I moved to southern California to take up surfing."

In 1965 reality set in. He got drafted off his surfboard, joined the Navy as a medic, and was sent to Vietnam to work at a field hospital in Da Nang. The experience changed his life and motivated him to go back to school and pursue a career in medical research.

He became a rising star at the National Institutes of Health, and just as quickly grew frustrated with the politics and bureaucracy of government science. When the NIH declined to fund some of his unorthodox new ideas, he left and found private investors who would.

"I think we have a real problem with how science is funded and done in this country," Venter said. "I mean almost every breakthrough I've been associated with is from having independent money. And once they worked, we can get tons of government money to follow up on it. But, we could never get the money to do the initial experiment."

In 1998, a company that made cutting edge technology to analyze DNA hired him to take on the federal government in a race to identify all the genetic material in the human body. The federally funded human genome project had already been working on it for years.

Asked why he decided to challenge the government, Venter said, "The way it was being done just didn't make any sense. We ended up doing it in nine months instead of 15 years. That's a big difference."

When the competition produced bad blood and bad publicity in the scientific community, the Clinton administration arranged for the two sides to announce a truce and a tie, even though many believe Venter's company, Celera Genomics, was ahead. But for Venter the celebration was short-lived: the tension between making science and making money and personality conflicts with his corporate bosses got Venter sacked a year and a half later.

"You accomplished all this stuff. And you got fired by the company that brought you in to do this," Kroft remarked. "They locked the doors."

"They locked the doors and sent me away," Venter acknowledged.

The experience left him deeply depressed, but he was financially well off and still in business, having endowed his research institute with $100 million in stock at the height of biotech boom. Within a few years, he was once again making waves in the world of science.

Only this time, at age 64, he's not just trying to decipher genetic codes. Now, he's trying to create them.

"This is a quote from one of your critics: 'He's trying to short-circuit millions of years of evolution and create his own version of a second genesis. It's the height of hubris. It's irresponsible. And he can't tell you it's going to be safe,'" Kroft said.

"Except for the second part, I was taking that as a compliment," Venter replied, laughing. "I can tell you what we're doing is safe. There's no way that I can guarantee that other people that use these tools will do intelligent, safe experiments with it. But I think the chance of evil happening with this and somebody even trying to do deliberate evil would be pretty hard."

"Why?" Kroft asked.

"Because the complexity of biology," Venter said. "You know, we're not working with human pathogens. We're working with algae cells. And part of our design is cells that won't survive outside of a facility or a laboratory. And we think other scientists will adopt these same approaches."

"There are some things that concern you about this?" Kroft asked.

"Well, it is powerful technology. It's something that needs to be monitored absolutely," Venter replied.

President Obama was concerned enough to ask his commission on bioethics to hold hearings on Venter's new technology shortly after the results were published in the journal Science. Apart from the legal and regulatory questions raised, there are some moral and ethical ones as well.

"There are a lot of people in this country who don't think that you ought to screw around with nature," Kroft remarked.

"We don't have too many choices now. We are a society that is one hundred percent dependent on science. We're going to go up in our population in the next 40 years; we can't deal with the population we have without destroying our environment," Venter said.

"But aren't you playing God?" Kroft asked.

"We're not playing anything. We're understanding the rules of life," Venter said.

"But that's more than studying life, that's changing life," Kroft pointed out.

"Well, domesticating animals was changing life, domesticating corn. When you do cross-breeding of plants, you're doing this blind experiment where you're just mixing DNA of different types of cells and just seeing what comes out of it," Venter said.

"This is a little different though, this is another step, isn't it?" Kroft asked.

"Yeah, now we're doing it in a deliberate design fashion with tiny bacteria. I think it's much healthier to do it based on some knowledge and a better understanding of life than to do it blindly and randomly," Venter said.

"You know, I've asked two or three times, 'Do you think you're playing God?' I mean, do you believe in God?" Kroft asked.

"No," Venter replied. "I believe the universe is far more wonderful than just assuming it was made by some higher power. I think the fact that these cells are software-driven machines and that software is DNA and that truly the secret of life is writing software, is pretty miraculous. Just seeing that process in the simplest forms that we're just witnessing is pretty stunning."

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