INDUSTRIAL BIOTECHNOLOGY: Dr. Venter, in the short time that has elapsed since you created the first synthetic genome and new organism, what are the main things this discovery has taught us?
CRAIG VENTER: It has taught and proved that life is a DNA software system and that the information contained within that DNA code contains all the information necessary for life.
IB: Did anything in particular about the process or the findings surprise you?
CRAIG VENTER: The fact that the process works by being able to transplant genomes gave us a lot of clues concerning how evolution occurred, which is actually quite different than what people had thought. The prevailing theories being that just a lot of point mutations collected over billions of years. The fact that we can actually find evidence in the environment for entire genomes being transferred at one time–such as chloroplasts and mitochondria–suggests that evolution is more punctate than a lot of people think, adding perhaps thousands of changes in one event instead of just a selection of minor changes.
IB: What do you see as the main R&D challenges for synthetic biology within the industrial biotechnology community?
CRAIG VENTER: The work to create a new life form was a pilot, proof-of-principle study to show that we could take digital information into a computer, make the chemical version of that information in DNA, boot up that synthetic DNA, and make cells that are driven by the synthetic DNA. In practice, to affect the future of biotechnology and industrial biotechnology we will have to apply those tools in a comprehensive fashion to solve some of the biggest problems out there. At Synthetic Genomics that is what we're doing. We are working on engineered cells to produce new sources of food and chemicals, and potentially fuel in the long run. We are working on new ways to manufacture vaccines and make antimicrobials. This technology will affect everything in industrial biotechnology; it's just a matter of how fast that happens. I argue in my book, Life at the Speed of Light, that this could be the start of a new Industrial Revolution.
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