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Craig Venter On Living With Synthetic Life

This program is rebroadcast from October 29, 2013.

Famed genome sequencer Craig Venter joins us to look at the brave new world of synthetic life.

J. Craig Venter. (Viking Publishing)

J. Craig Venter. (Viking Publishing)

In the spring of 2010, Craig Venter – the “richest and most powerful man in biotechnology,” he’s been called – announced the creation of a new life form.  Synthetic life.  Genetically coded on a computer, and popped to life.  Specifications dropped in by a human hand.  Self-replicating and ready to go.  It was a bombshell in biology circles.  The rest of the world is still taking it onboard.  Now Venter’s talking about it as a challenge to our understanding of life itself.  A boon, he hopes.  And maybe a teleporter, too.  Up next On Point:  Craig Venter on the advance of synthetic life.

– Tom Ashbrook


J. Craig Venter, molecular biologist and entrepreneur, author of “Life At the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life.” Founder and CEO of the J. Craig Venter Institute and of Synthetic Genomics, Inc. (@JCVenter)

From Tom’s Reading List

Foreign Affairs: Biology’s Brave New World – “Looking at the strings of letters representing the DNA sequence for a virus called phi X174, which infects bacteria, he thought to himself, ‘I can assemble real DNA based on that computer information.’ And so he did, creating a virus based on the phi X174 genomic code. He followed the same recipe later on to generate the DNA for his larger and more sophisticated creature. Venter and his team figured out how to make an artificial bacterial cell, inserted their man-made DNA genome inside, and watched as the organic life form they had synthesized moved, ate, breathed, and replicated itself.”

NBC News: Genomics pioneer Craig Venter warns about biohacker boo-boos — “As Venter points out in his book, ‘Life at the Speed of Light,’ he’s not the only one worried about biohacker boo-boos. Almost three years ago, a presidential commission on bioethics raised concerns about the risk of “low-probability, high-impact events” such as the creation of a doomsday virus. Bioterror is one aspect of the issue, but Venter says he’s also concerned about bio-error — ‘the fallout that could occur as the result of DNA manipulation by a non-scientifically trained biohacker or ‘biopunk.””

The Guardian: ‘This isn’t a fantasy look at the future. We are doing the future’ – “A reader could be forgiven for thinking the book is really aimed at the Nobel prize committee, but Venter claims he just wants more people to understand him. ‘One of the motivations for the book is to put this in a historical context because of all the confusion out there when we did it,’ he says. ‘I think the work that we have done with the first genome in history, the human genome and with the first synthetic cell is certainly of the world caliber that obviously earns big prizes.’”

Read An Excerpt of “Life At the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life” by J. Craig Venter

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  • Ed75

    God made man a co-creator in creation, here we see it in another situation. (But be careful of what these artificial bacteria might do.)
    We see that creation is oriented toward life.

    • J__o__h__n

      How do you make someone you created a co-creator?

      • geraldfnord

        By giving her a percentage of the gross.

      • Ed75

        Yes, it’s quite elegant. For example, a husband and wife in having a child are co-creators with God. In evolution species adapt to their environment, assist in creating themselves, Or in history, a person makes a decision that changes the course of history, co-creating the future. God is always generous and works in a cooperative way.

  • Jasoturner

    Venter is a fascinating guy with the drive and confidence to push the outer limits of biology. Should be a fascinating program.

    Synthetic life seems inevitable to me, given how far we have already come in understanding genetics and protein synthesis. Amazing to think that by simply broadcasting a code, we could populate the universe. At least in theory, and assuming someone is out there to act on our broadcast. Or we could send a machine that would build our codes once it landed on a suitable planet.

    Synthetic biology might also let us experiment with other mechanisms of self-replication that did not evolve here on earth. A living organism that did not depend upon DNA to replicate would be a real philosophical game changer.

  • PithHelmut

    Humans individuals need to be more self-empowered and involved before we go creating new life forms (and more socially cohesive). It cannot be left to scientists alone or scientists and bankers and politicians. This technology will affect everyone. It requires discussion on a grand scale.

  • Phil

    Evolution succeeds because of the long feed back loop which confirms or eliminates mutations and the like. Attempting to accelerate this process makes Venter sound like a mad scientist. His scientific ego is so large it touches on “out of control” and I mean that literally because there is no one keeping him and those like him (Monsanto) in check. Their attitude is “I did it because I could – what’s wrong with that?”

    • geraldfnord

      Thank-you; this point is a basic one that I don’t hear made often enough…and it amuses me to find myself expounding what is supposed to be a basic principle of ‘conservatism’ as it used to be constituted.

    • Jasoturner

      In the movie “The Matrix”, one of the robot guys calls humans a virus. In many ways this strikes me as accurate. We infiltrate every corner of the globe and push out the native species. We deplete resources to the point of total exhaustion. We create waste (think nuclear) that we will not and cannot dispose of.

      Well, as good little viruses that seem determined to eventually kill our host planet, maybe Venter is the next viral mutation that will make us even more insidious and effective…

  • Hopeglory

    I think FRANKENSTIEN? JURASSIC PARK? Are we “playing God here?

  • John_in_VT

    Listening to Venter reminds me of the old saying ‘Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.’

  • DrTing

    How to control the creation of new bioterrorism
    agents (a mix of synthetic virus & fungus & bacteria)?

  • ThirdWayForward

    Tuned in about 2/3 of the way through the program, so we don’t know whether Venter was asked about his definition of life. We think that the hallmark of life is regenerative organization, i.e. a system that continually produces itself, its components, their relations and processes. This has come under the rubric of self-reproducing & self-repairing automata (von Neumann, Rosen), autopoiesis (Maturana & Varela), and autocatalytic sets (Kaufmann) — these are our best ideas from theoretical biology.

    If you are going to design a stable self-replicating living organization, you need design principles. We do not have a field of theoretical biology per se because the molecularists arrogantly think that all you need (or all there is) is mechanism, that life is understood when it is reduced to microscopic parts and their interactions. We need a theory of process and organization that tells us that this or that assemblage of processes will be mutually reinforcing, regenerative and stable. We need a theory of the functional organization of life, that complements the parts-lists and molecular mechanisms and genetic plans of molecular biology.

    One problem is that molecular biology is radically anti theoretical — in today’s environment, Watson and Crick’s hypothesis about DNA as the vehicle of genetic inheritance would never be funded, at least not until they had already made their insights and discoveries.

  • Talisker23

    Frankly, I don’t see the problem with this. We’ve been doing similar things for hundreds of years. There is very little human interaction with the “natural” world at this point. Practically nothing we eat has not been manipulated by man.

  • http://www.avclub.com/users/incurable-ennui,70820/ Incurable Ennui

    Wow. I forgot how smug, dismissive and rude Mr. Venter was when this was originally broadcast. While he may very well be a brilliant scientist, his hubris that somehow synthetic life would be beyond the ability of humans to misuse was gob-smacking. Of course he doesn’t acknowledge his own personal monetary gain from charging ahead with a “just trust us, we know what we’re doing” axiom. Likewise, his inability to address callers and commenters with respect was embarrassing – even those who were fellow scientists in his field. It actually undermined his credibility, as trivializing these opposing viewpoints seemed a lazy, arrogant way to avoid actually supporting his own arguments. His comment about knowing more thoughtful scientists than fisherman might have been the hour’s event horizon of rudeness – and thanks to Tom for skillfully calling him out on that. Again – I don’t doubt the potential benefits, or the likelihood that this is coming. His attitude was a real big turn-off to what was otherwise a very interesting subject.

  • LoganEcholls

    As a scientist, this guy isn’t very impressive. Life at the speed of light? Umm, no. The electrical signals that transmit internet data move at a tiny fraction of the speed of light.

  • peteo

    I’m a biologist by trade, and frankly, this guy makes me as angry as the anti-evolution crowd. His flare for the sensational (putting his “teleporter” on a C130–really?) is dangerous to public understanding of science. In this interview, he seems more concerned about sounding like a wizard than he does about trying to help people with some fairly understandable and basic biology. His constant focus on turning the “digital” into the “biological” (and visa versa) detracts from and confuses the biology of what he’s doing–of course we can use computers to generate DNA (and, thus, blueprints for life). These computers are hooked up to machines which generate DNA using known chemistry as dictated by their software. This is not revolutionary although he wants to make it sound like it is when it comes in the context of his work.

    In short, while he does have a nice ability to string together known techniques and scale them up, his ideas built on tried-and-true biological techniques which, due to his abundance of hubris, he has no interest in making accessible or understandable to the public.

  • drumforlife

    Why don’t he use his skills for today ills,,,today’s life and human sustaining needs…

    • Expanded_Consciousness

      That is exactly where this research will lead.

  • SomeGuyNamedMark

    It would give new meaning to the term “couch potato”

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