Seeing Earth’s future in a petri dish

Times Staff Writer

J. Craig Venter, the founder of Celera Genomics, has spent much of the last decade decoding the world. After the federal government spent nearly that long working on the human genome, Venter plunged into the race with a new technology called shotgun sequencing and completed the feat in two years. Since then, he has launched a global expedition to sequence DNA from ocean microbes and recently had his own DNA decoded, publishing the results in a scientific journal. Now president of the nonprofit J. Craig Venter Institute, he visited The Times to discuss these projects and his new book, “A Life Decoded.”

Why did you decode your own genome?

It was deemed a controversial issue. People were afraid about their genetic code and how it would be used against them. I felt it was not fair to ask somebody to do things if I was not willing to do it.

Aren’t you worried about genetic discrimination?

If anybody has a perfect genome, I haven’t met them yet. . . . I don’t think we have risk from the real information and real science. We have risk from misinformation and prejudice. As we saw at the initiation of HIV, employers didn’t want to hire somebody with HIV because they were sure they were all going to catch it by talking to people who had HIV.


What prompted you to go looking for genes in the ocean?

People were uncertain what life even existed on our planet. We decided to go do the experiment. Turns out we know very little of the biology associated with our own planet.

How much new stuff did you find?

Every 200 miles, 85% of the sequences were unique. The ocean is not a giant homogeneous soup -- it’s millions of micro-environments.

For example, in the middle of the Sargasso Sea, the water is a deep blue. The photoreceptors in the organisms that have survived there see primarily blue light. You get into coastal waters where there is a lot of chlorophyll, and they see primarily green light. It’s a great evolutionary story. There is a single base pair genetic code change that changes the amino acid that determines the wavelength of light for the photoreceptor. It’s random mutation and selection.

Do you think DNA is everywhere?

I’m sure we’ll find organisms in outer space.

What makes you think extraterrestrials have DNA?

My personal guess is it will be ubiquitous throughout the universe. My favorite statistic is in our own galaxy: We have 100,000 Earth and super-Earth planets. I think the same chemicals get together to form planets. My guess is biology and life as we know it will be one of the universal aspects of the universe.

How would you find it?

The best way to look for evidence of life in the universe is to look for DNA polymers, because the chance of those occurring randomly is close to zero.

The Mars Sample Return mission got canceled, which is really a shame. Getting samples back from Mars could have been the single-most exciting experiment of the century. But even if our species can’t get out there to sample it, it doesn’t mean it’s not there. All these organisms have been in the ocean for the last several billion years and we kind of missed them too.


Has anyone checked moon rocks?

We’re in discussions with NASA to look at some of those gels from the Stardust mission [which collected dust from a comet in 2004]. It’s very cool.

What if you find something that will freak people out?

Who could not like the idea of life in space?

What got you started in science?

I went from being a young surfer to a medical corpsman in the middle of the Vietnam War. It’s called the University of Death. I learned that knowledge was power. If you had knowledge, you could do more to help people.

When I got back, I planned to go to medical school. I had to start over in a community college and transferred to UC San Diego. That’s where I got introduced to high-end science. I was so hooked, I gave up on medicine and kept going.

What is this new field of synthetic biology that you’re working on now?

We’re designing genomes to do what we want. I’ve described these as the design components of the future. If you liken that to the electronics industry in the 1950s, there were a handful of components -- resistors, transistors, capacitors. We will have tens of millions of design components for biology.

What sort of things do you imagine could be built?

We’re trying to design cells that produce unique renewable fuels. We have one of those in extensive testing now that could be one of the first green jet fuels. Hopefully there’ll be hundreds of these. With this breadth of biology, we have the capability of probably making any chemical out there. It’s not hard even to imagine gasoline or octane that we put into our tanks. Bacteria can make that.

Would this be produced on farms?

I’m thinking a country of this size could have 100,000 to 1 million mini-refineries. Just bacterial vats, hopefully not as big as barn silos. The notion I have is: You get rid of the distribution system and produce it where you need it.

So you’re hopeful designer bacteria can help fight global warming?

I’m counting on it. What other choices are there? We’re going to go back and live in caves and not drive cars? We either find a technological fix or we go out of existence. If you don’t like bacteria, you’re on the wrong planet. This is the planet of the bacteria.