Venter predicts that new methods of digital design and manufacture will provide the next revolution in genetic with synthetic cells and organism tailor-made to tackle humanity’s problems: a toolkit of sequenced genes will be used to create disease-resistant animals; higher yielding crops; and drugs that extend human life and boost our brain power.
These ideas have been outlined in Venter’s latest book ‘Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life’, in which the geneticists asks the age-old question ‘what is life?’ before detailing the history – and future – of creating the stuff from scratch.
For Venter life can be reduced to “protein robots” and “DNA machines” but he also believes that technology will unlock far more exotic opportunities for creating life. The title of the publication refers to the idea that we may be able to transmit DNA sequences found on Mars back to Earth (at the speed of light) to be replicated at home by biological printers.
“I am confident that life once thrived on Mars and may well still exist there today,” writes Venter. “The day is not far off when we will be able to send a robotically controlled genome-sequencing unit in a probe to other planets to read the DNA sequence of any alien microbe life that may be there.”
Venter’s ideas may sound like science fiction but he has achieved comparable feats in the past. Frustrated by what he viewed as slow government-led efforts to sequence the human genome in the 90s, Venter raised private capital to create a rival effort under the company name of Celera
Fears that Venter and his backers would attempt to patent the genome spurred the US-led effort into action and global genes-race was sparked, with both sides eventually agreeing to announce their result one day apart in February 2001.
Venter parted ways with Celera in 2002 and founded the J.Craig Venter institute in 2006. In 2010 he and his colleagues at the institute announced that they had created the world’s first synthetic organism.
The team creating a bacterium genome from scratch and ‘watermarked’ it with custom DNA strings (these included an encoded email address) before transplanting it into another cell. The cell then began to reproduce, making it the first living species created by humanity.
Although such pioneering work frequently raises ethical questions over the danger of humanity ‘playing God’, Venter writes that he is not concerned with such concerns. In ‘Life at the Speed of Light’ he writes: “My greatest fear is not the abuse of technology but that we will not use it at all.”