Designing Life: What's Next for J. Craig Venter?

Meet The Man Whose Team Mapped The Human Genome And Created "Synthetic Life"

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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.