Venter Institute researchers move into new La Jolla digs

Geneticist J. Craig Venter poses on the deck of his second-floor office at his new research facility at the corner of Torrey Pines Road and La Jolla Village Drive. Pictured with him is his miniature poodle, Darwin. Pat Sherman photos

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By Pat Sherman

Sequencing the human genome requires a lot of freezer space to store DNA, the molecule in which most living organisms’ genetic instructions and hereditary information is contained.

A model of energy efficiency and sustainability, the new J. Craig Venter Institute off Torrey Pines Road wastes none of the heat energy required to keep its copious freezers at around -80 degrees Celsius.

“Underneath this building there are two 25,000-gallon water tanks that we use to store thermal energy,” explained Venter Institute’s chief operating officer, Bob Friedman, during a tour of the facility on its second day of operations. “We collect all the waste heat in the building during the day, including waste heat from (lab) freezers. Then we use what would have been waste heat to heat the building at night.”

The 45,000-sqaure-foot, not-for-profit research facility even includes its own weather station to measure current conditions such as wind speed and sunlight intensity to maximize its computer controlled, energy efficient technology. This includes everything from low-water landscaping to green rooftops, photovoltaic panels, windows that flood the building with natural daylight and sustainably harvested wood, such as the bamboo used for furniture in founder J. Craig Venter’s second-story office, and elsewhere in the facility.

Paving tiles in the J. Craig Venter Institute’s central courtyard drain rainwater to a collection system below, where it is filtered and disinfected for non-potable applications, such as landscaping.

“It’s trying to literally put our money where our mouths are in (terms of) the environment,” said the genial geneticist, tossing a drink coaster Frisbee-style to his publicist and wife, Heather Kowalski, seated on a sofa nearby with their 4-year-old miniature poodle, Darwin, at her side.

“This is the most environmentally (friendly) research facility ever constructed,” Venter said. “We’re trying to practice what we preach and live and set examples for showing that (sustainable) engineering can be done for complicated research buildings, not just for office buildings.”

“As you can see, it’s a very bright and open environment,” he added.

Asked if that open atmosphere includes an open door policy with employees, Venter joked that an assistant is armed with a Taser at his door.

“We don’t just let ‘em just walk in,” he laughed, “(but), yes, I want to be visible as well. … Everybody’s open and accessible.

“I’m already seeing employees who have been hidden in offices and corners of the (former) building that I never saw before,” he added. “In my research career that started here (in La Jolla) in 1972, I’ve never seen such a gorgeous environment for working or doing research in. Sitting here looking over the ocean and La Jolla Cove, if this is not a great environment for you, we should move you to the … psych ward.”

Bob Friedman, the Venter Institute’s chief operating officer, discusses the facility’s water-based heating and cooling system, which uses heat generated from lab freezers to warm the building at night.

The building is comprised of about 40 percent lab space and 60 percent office space — with no cubicle-style barriers separating researchers, which Venter said is designed to promote a collaborative work environment.

“Out of sight is often out of mind,” he said. “It’s to encourage the scientists to talk to each other … and encouraging interactions.”

Patio furniture on the decks will provide further interactive space for researchers.

“We are on the UC campus,” Venter said. “The goal is to have lots of collaborations — that’s what this facility’s designed for. There will be graduate students here, post-docs from the university, undergraduate students. … It’s forcing and encouraging interaction with people by having them be exposed to each other.”

Distinguished professors Clyde Hutchison and Nobel Laureate Ham Smith head the J. Craig Venter Institute’s synthetic biology team. ■ Clyde Hutchison: “Our focus is on building a cell with a minimal genome — only the genes that are absolutely necessary to have a living cell.” ■ Ham Smith: “We want to know that set of genes that you absolutely have to have for a cell to be living. We can build up from that.”

The move from the Venter Institute’s former building on Science Center Drive won’t change the work of its roughly 300 scientists and staff — which includes its efforts to create synthetic living cells and transform genetic code, as well as the study of the human microbiome, a collaboration with Dr. David Brenner, Dean of the UC San Diego School of Medicine. A microbiome is a community of symbiotic and pathogenic microorganisms sharing the human body, which was first discovered by Venter Institute researchers.

“You have more bacteria associated with your body than you have human cells,” Venter said. “It’s associated with almost every disease — obesity, diabetes. … We have a diverse group of scientists here for a small research institution.”

While the research won’t change, Venter said the environment in which the research is conducted has definitely evolved.

“I have offices in other places; I’m closing them down,” he said. “I’m moving into this as my permanent office.”

Related posts:

  1. J. Craig Venter discusses new book, readies for namesake research institute opening in La Jolla
  2. Top thinkers share ideas at Atlantic Meets Pacific confab in La Jolla
  3. UCSD considers impact of La Jolla Shores home remodel on university’s adjacent property
  4. Fisheries researchers prepare for move to new La Jolla digs
  5. Book examines tenure of University of California system president Richard Atkinson

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Posted by Pat Sherman on Nov 29, 2013. Filed under Featured Story, La Jolla, News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

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