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Craig Venter on Race & Science

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Published on Feb 18, 2009

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The man who mapped the human genome has a new focus: using microbes to create alternative fuels. Craig Venter, maverick biologist, wants to cure our addiction to oil. To do so, he proposes creating a designer microbe -- the heart of a biological engine -- from scratch, then adding genes culled from the sea to turn crops such as switch grass and cornstalks into ethanol. This could prompt a major shift in the economics of the energy industry and in the process bring Venter to a secondary goal: showing the world he can be as successful as he was at sequencing human DNA.On January 24, 2008 Venter graced the cover of the New York Times with an article about him titled Scientists Take New Step Toward Man-Made Life. The New York Times says that Venter is getting close to his vision of "life by design." Venter, a former surf-bum and Vietnam medic, brought about a paradigm shift in genomic sequencing that has entered him in the mythology of science. He wanted to play God, so he cracked the human genome. Now he wants to play Darwin and collect the DNA of everything on the planet. Venter has graced the covers of Time and BusinessWeek. After antagonizing government scientists while racing them to map the human genome, Venter is back, making the typically bold statements that have long polarized opinion about him. Either he is one of this era's most electrifying scientists, or he's one of the most maddening. He is apt in conversation to compare himself to Robin Hood. Or Darwin. "Yes, Craig confronts," said Alfonso Romo Garza, a Mexican billionaire, controller of a decent chunk of the world's commercial vegetable seeds and a backer of Venter's latest undertaking. "Of course, he's antagonistic. He's controversial. But I love controversial people because those are the people who change the world." Bearded from a three-year, Darwinesque yacht trip around the world, Venter also now sports an extensive collection of genetic material scooped from the sea on his journey -- and that's the raw material for his alternative fuel project. Venters yacht the Sorcerer II is on an expedition that updates the great scientific voyages of the 18th and 19th centuries, notably Charles Darwin's journey aboard HMS Beagle. But instead of bagging his finds in bottles and gunnysacks, Venter is capturing their DNA on filter paper and shipping it to be sequenced and analyzed at his headquarters. Venter says. "This will put everything Darwin missed into context." Venter launched the venture with his longtime collaborator, Hamilton O. Smith, who won a Nobel Prize for physiology and medicine and is a noted expert in DNA manipulation techniques. Venters ambition: Create life. Use it to make fuel. There are caveats, to be sure. At the top of his to-do list: Create life from scratch, splicing artificial DNA sequences to build a functioning synthetic genome then inserting it into a cell. The ultimate goal would be to endow this man-made organism with the genes to perform some specific environmental task - gobble carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, say, or produce hydrogen for fuel cells. In the case of energy, the problems are well known. Oil prices have skyrocketed. There are national security concerns over relying so heavily on foreign oil sources. Venter believes in creating a Whole Earth Gene Catalog, complete with descriptions of every gene's function. If you want to find the role of 100,000 genes, Venter says, the trick is to find a way of doing 100,000 experiments at once. All you would need that's not already available is a synthetic genome, a sort of all-purpose template onto which you could attach any gene you wished, like inserting a blade onto a handle. You could then test the resulting concoction to see if it performed a specific vital task, such as metabolizing sugar or transporting energy. Using existing robotic technologies, you could do thousands of such experiments at once, in much the same way that a combinatorial chemist tests thousands of chemical compounds simultaneously to see if they have the desired effect on a target molecule. Most will not. But the ones that do can be investigated further. "I call it combinatorial genomics," Venter tells me. "It's one of my better ideas if it works. In fact, it's one of my better ideas if it doesn't work." Biotech changed the way drugs are developed. For Venter and others, there is more work to be done. "Sometimes you get a new idea that is better than the old idea," he said. "It wouldn't be the first time I've done that."

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