For J. Craig Venter, the world's foremost genomic researcher, attempting to decipher nature's blueprint for life and synthesizing it has proven to be only half the challenge facing him and the rest of his crackerjack team of scientists. The other half of the job has been helping the rest of us understand what the guys and gals back at Venter’s three laboratories—Celera Genomics, The Institute for Genomic Research and the J. Craig Venter Institute—are busy discovering.

"It is a challenge," says the man credited with being one of the first scientists to sequence the human genome and with creating the first cell using a synthetic genome. "But I think communicating is a key part of what being a scientist is. I think it's a social and public responsibility. Particularly when you're working on the leading edge of things. Having public discussions and interactions, and having people trying to understand what we do…is an essential part of being a scientist."

With that imperative uppermost in his mind, Venter has spent the last few years diligently applying the same focus and energy composing his latest book, Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life, as he has attempting to ascertain the minimum number of genes needed for life.

"Despite all the new electronics, books are still probably the single most important way of communicating ideas to the world," the 67-year-old Venter says. "There are different ways to read books electronically. But somebody still has to write them. And this book was four years of labor to do the right research, get things together and trying to put it into a form that would be understandable to the world."

Continue reading >


 

With all that he’s accomplished, Venter’s work in synthetic genomics is still exceedingly complex, partly because “we don't know a lot about biology,” he says. “We know that there are 50 to 100 genes of unknown function other than that they're essential to life,” he says.

What scientists are learning is that designing life from scratch is a bit like trying to build a jet engine using a weird but essential component: You don’t know how the component works—only that your jet engine won’t work without it.

Attempting to crack some of nature's most stubborn secrets and then relating them to the wider world is a daunting enough task for any human to try and undertake. But toss in a particularly frustrating climate of anti-intellectualism and things become very tiresome, indeed. Even dangerous.

"There's this trend represented by some in Congress promoting scientific illiteracy," Venter says. "As though having knowledge is a bad thing and people are wasting their time going to college and getting educated. We are 100 percent dependent on science for our future. We have to have new technological advances to survive. We're increasing the population substantially beyond what it's ever been. We have to have new sources of food, we have to have new sources of energy. Everything associated with how we live gets very complicated with adding millions of people to the population. The more highly educated people that we can get, the better our odds are of surviving."Ventner cover

Cement-headed reactionaries aside, people have long been leery of scientists monkeying around with the building blocks of life stretching all the way back to Shelley’s Frankenstein and well before. And Venter, as his meticulously researched new book demonstrates, is well-aware of the fact.

"No matter what the technology is, there are positive and negative aspects," Venter says. "It can be as simple as a hammer being used to build a home or hospital or it can be used to hit somebody on the head and kill them.”

According to Venter, almost all new technology harbors this “dual-use dichotomy.”

While embarking on their latest experiments in synthetic life, Venter says that he and his team also made sure to request an ethical review, invited public discussions and generally spend “a lot of time trying to make sure we're on the right side of this."

While devoting so much energy to getting things right, Venter is convinced that the scientific community as a whole is still headed the wrong way when it comes to funding vital projects.

“We have a huge federal budget for funding science,” Venter says. “And my argument is, for the amount of money going into science, we should have far more breakthroughs than we're getting. I think people get stuck in this incremental kind of thinking associated with how science does get funded.”

Instead of fostering an often counter-productive environment where scientists compete for research dollars, Venter and his colleagues have advanced new team approaches to science where they work together with experts across multiple disciplines to multiply brainpower and realize things that weren't possible before.

"We’ve been able to work together as a team versus treating it as a competition for funds,” Venter says. “One of my key discoveries was learning that most people like working on a project that's much bigger than themselves.”

Joe Maniscalco is a writer living in Brooklyn.