When government agencies were forced to confront an outbreak of the swine flu virus H1N1 in 2009, it took almost six months to have the vaccine ready.
The next time that happens, vaccines could be ready in less than a week, J. Craig Venter, Ph.D., tells ForbesIndia.
Under that future scenario, as laid out by the genomics pioneer researcher and entrepreneur in an interview, the U.S. government, possibly in consultation with the World Health Organization, can simply email the DNA code of the virus to his namesake J. Craig Venter Institute, or his company Synthetic Genomics. Either can then download it, synthesize the genome, then send it to Novartis for scaling up and vaccine production.
Dr. Venter—who was named by GEN readers last December as the “Steve Jobs of Biotechnology”—is leading a team at his institute focused on enabling email transfer of the digital life code, to be downloaded on demand for various applications. Dr. Venter’s team is building a digital-biological converter that will convert biological information into digital information, much akin to a telephone capable of converting digital information into sound.
Earlier this month, Dr. Venter addressed the Euro Science Open Forum 2012 in Dublin, where he delivered a public lecture at the Trinity College with the simple yet profound title, “What is Life?” The inspiration came from the title of a book compiled from three public lectures delivered in 1943 by physicist Erwin Schrodinger, Ph.D. Dr. Schrodinger posited nothing less than a code for life, proposing that the gene behind the code was an “aperiodic crystal,” reasoning that the gene involved had to be some sort of crystal because it required stability in order to be passed on from generation to generation.
“It’s remarkable that his analogy suggested the code had to be stable and relatively simple. Most people don’t understand that everything that comes out of their computers is from 0s and 1s. That’s a pretty simple code,” Venter told ForbesIndia.
Among scientists inspired by Dr. Schrodinger’s ideas were James Watson, and Francis Crick, who less than a decade later would co-discover the structure of DNA.
Dr. Watson isn’t impressed by Dr. Venter’s latest thinking.
“Venter isn’t going to change the world,” harrumphed no one less than the co-developer of DNA’s structure, James Watson, to an Irish television journalist on July 12 after an interactive session at the science forum, adding, “If you are waiting for him to change the world, go to church."
That’s not the first time Dr. Watson has been dismissive of Dr. Venter: In a 2010 video interview posted by BigThink last year, the DNA co-discoverer damned the genomics giant with the faint praise of being “certainly a great marketer,” and downplayed Dr. Venter’s work to develop synthetic life by saying: “we’re just making a very close mimic to what already exists. So I wouldn’t say it’s a new form of life at all.”
The two have disagreed going back almost two decades, when Dr. Venter, frustrated with the pace of the government-sponsored Human Genome Project and looking to capitalize on some of its discoveries, broke from the scientific pack and formed his own private team. “Normally I’d like data to be obtained as fast as possible, but not if it went into private hands. Some DNA sequences have been patented, and monopoly situations have basically slowed down research and have made medical testing more expensive,” Dr. Watson contended.
Two years ago, Dr. Venter and his team shook the molecular biology field by publishing a proof of concept showing that it was possible to design and “manufacture” a synthetic life form akin to a bacterial life form found in nature using four bottles of commonly known chemicals.
The team has gone on to try to build a unique organism not fund in nature, Dr. Venter said: “We have come up with three new designs and we are building those organisms…not sure which of them will work.”
Dr. Venter projected the value of the synthetic life breakthrough at a trillion dollars.
While society continues to wrestle with genetically modified crops, Dr. Venter told ForbesIndia he is convinced that the world will have to accept synthetic biology given the challenge to the planet of providing food, clean water, energy and medicine to 7 billion+ people—and that potential applications of synthetic life forms are only limited by our imagination, adding: “We are now a species that is 100% dependent on science for its existence.”