J. Craig Venter discusses new book, readies for namesake research institute opening in La Jolla

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Geneticist, author and UC San Diego alumni J. Craig Venter (left) discusses his career with moderator Roger Bingham of Salk Institute’s Computational Neurobiology Laboratory at UCSD’s Price Center Ballroom East. Pat Sherman

By Pat Sherman

One of the world’s leading geneticists and arguably the most famous UC San Diego graduate, J. Craig Venter, was thoughtful, direct and, at times, equally witty and outspoken during a presentation at UCSD’s Price Center Ballroom East on Oct. 28.

Venter, one of the first scientists to sequence the human genome, and whose name will grace a $39 million, nonprofit genetic research institute opening on the UCSD campus this month, was at UCSD to promote his new book, “Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life,” about the emerging field of synthetic genomics.

A self-described late bloomer who “almost flunked out of high school” and moved to Southern California to pursue a surfing career, Venter’s book uses speed as one of the central themes tying it together.

“I am probably an adrenaline addict. My doctoral thesis was basically on how adrenaline works,” said Venter, 67, who participated in last month’s Pedal the Cause bike ride and also said he once aspired to be a racecar driver.

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Colleen Stoyas, a doctoral student in biomedical sciences at UCSD, asks J. Craig Venter for his take on the shortage of positions for university graduates with degrees in science, technology, engineering and math.

However, those dreams faded,  Venter said, when he was “drafted off my surfboard and ended up as a corpsman in Vietnam,” where he was initially inspired to study medicine (a path he grew bored with once he discovered genetics at UCSD).

“Life is short,” he said. “We have a limited time to accomplish something, so speed is essential in trying to do things. … It would be a whole lot better for everybody if science went a whole lot faster. I argue that we should have 10 times the pace of discovery.”

In “Life at the Speed of Light,” Venter discusses what he views as DNA and digital technology becoming rapidly interchangeable.

“When we read the genetic code, I describe it as digitizing biology. … Now we can go the other direction. We can start with the digital code and re-create the DNA code from four bottles of chemicals,” he said.

“In theory you can recapitulate all of life if you get back to the genetic code,” he said. “The implication for this is (that) we will be able to download biology from the Internet. … All of life as we know it can be sent as digital code through the Internet or as an electromagnetic wave.”

Venter explained that experiments conducted with his colleague, Nobel Prize-winning microbiologist Hamilton Smith, show that chromosomes from one species can be placed into the recipient cell of another species, transforming the host species into what was described by the genetic code placed into it.

“We’ve shown that if you change the software, you change the species — and this has lots of implications for evolution,” Venter said.  “Evolution is very messy. So all these people who want ‘intelligent design’ need to look to the future and not to the past. … We’re defragging the genome by taking this messiness away and organizing genes by function in a logical way … for this future phase of evolution that we’re now entering.”

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