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

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.

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.”

Though most scientific breakthroughs are achieved by taking risks, it is difficult to get funding for risky, groundbreaking research, creating a catch-22 scenario, Venter noted.

“The scientific establishment will try to steer you away from taking risks. NIH (National Institutes of Health) doesn’t take risks with funding. Most breakthroughs, every breakthrough that I’ve been associated with, came from independent funding, not from government funding.”

Venter recalled trying to obtain funding from NIH Director Francis Collins for his team’s proposal to sequence the human genome with the shotgun sequencing (aka shotgun cloning) method.

“They were so certain that it wouldn’t work that even when we presented evidence that it would, a month before we published the paper, they still didn’t want to fund it,” he said.

“But the second we published our paper, three government agencies stepped up to give us all the money we could ever want to do this. So, you can’t get money to do the risky experiment that changes (things). Once you change the thinking, you can get all the money you want to follow up on it. We need to change that.”

Asked by moderator Bingham if he felt President Obama had lived up to his promise to “restore science to its rightful place,” Venter said he believes the president’s main accomplishment in this regard was “when he got rid of the stem cell ban — just getting religion and science out of politics sent a strong message.

“Since then, I’m not sure science has reached its rightful place … (where) science is no longer an option for society,” Venter added. “Our future is based 100 percent on science. And we have a huge group of people in Congress and in government that, being described as anti-intellectual, would be giving them too much credit. We can’t ignore science; we can’t ignore education. We can’t pretend the world’s not changing.

“I was born in 1946. There are now three people on the planet for every person that existed the year I was born. … We can’t feed them. We can’t provide clean water. We can’t provide medicine or housing for them. And we’re destroying our environment in the process. Somehow sticking our heads in the sand is the solution (in) politics.

“There’s more innovation in this country than anywhere else on the planet, but we have a system that’s trying to kill it off,” Venter concluded. “Countries come and go all the time throughout our history. What a sad thing if this becomes one of them that goes away because of the ignorance that’s enveloping it.”