When you bump into someone like Craig Venter, you normally feel that awkward and annoying sensation of being in front of that sort of genius that immediately relegates you in a cage of inferiority, since that guy/lady has that unintelligible mix of charisma and neuronal rapidity which leads him/her to accomplish incredibly complicated things without apparently no effort (I am thinking of people like Albert Einstein or Hannibal Lecter). Mr. Venter, apart from having founded several successful companies and the J. Craig Venter Institute – one of the leading research institutions in synthetic biology- is a self-made man, known for his stubbornness in running against the grain, and normally winning the bet. But most of all, he is known for having been the first to successfully create a form of “synthetic life”, generating a brand-new single-celled organism from the DNA of a bacterium. And now he claims that synthetic life could be easily created on a mainstream basis through 3D printers!!!
Born in Salt Lake City in 1946, educated at the University of California, San Diego, where he obtained a Bachelor in Biochemistry and a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology, Venter started working as a professor at New York University until joining the National Institute of Health. Once there, he discovered a new way for identifying the mRNAs present in a cell, and, subsequently, human brain genes. Extremely fascinated by the possibilities opened by this new technique, he then starting thinking of the possible applications in the healthcare realm, with the goal of better understanding the natural fundamental processes of biology and exploiting this knowledge in order to solve many of the medical and genetic problems afflicting humanity. In 2007, Venter’s own DNA sequence was the first fully published human genome. He then developed a web application, called Human Reference Genome Browser, enabling scientists to navigate Venter’s genome and to study it.
However, his major achievement has been that of creating a semi-synthetic lifeform, by combining the genome of the Mycoplasma Mycoides bacterium – one of the simplest forms of bacteria- with that of an existing cell, in the context of the so-called Minimal Genome Project, undertaken at the J.Craig Venter Institute. To be sure, this is not a totally new lifeform, since it is like a “collage” obtained thanks to the genetic material of an existing organism and molded as to rassemble an existing framework (and in fact the Vatican has not recognized the result as a new “creature”). Nonetheless, the final strain, named JCVI-syn 1.0 is able to self-replicate (and has already done so billion of times by now), and Venter has already announced that the new objective of his team is to create a completely new bacterium from scratch, called Mycoplasma Laboratorium.
That of nanotechnologies and synthetic genomics is a fastly developing sector, since it has applications in a huge variety of realms, from pharma to agriculture and biofuels. Venter himself co-founded one of the most famous companies in this respect (and certainly the one with the most original name), Synthetic Genomics, which is mainly involved in the development of advanced feedstocks and next generation biofuels. In 2009, the company concluded an agreement with Exxon Mobil, oriented at producing a new kind of algal biofuel, and has then made partnerships with BP and Agradis, among the others.
Venter has been asked the key question related to his work during a BBC program:
Obviously, this project poses an incredible amount of ethical questions, and might generate a myriad of problems, maybe not fully compensated by the (not yet demonstrated advantages). Apart from the right/wrong dilemma naturally attached to this experiment, the creation of a new, tradable, organism generates legal, patenting and commercial issues: who owns it? How to control its diffusion, especially if this organism is able to self-replicate? It has to be legally treated as a product, as an animal, or…? And then, who assures us that some negative, unexpected outcomes do not manifest, such as new forms of diseases, mutations etc.etc.? To put it simple, nobody would be even able to imagine the possible range of impacts coming from such an experiment, especially if it becomes uncontrollable or Venter loses his monopoly (one of the advanced scenarios has been that of chemical weapons and bacteriological attacks). Certainly the future shall and will host a lot of research concerning these new scientific fields, but worries and questions must have been anszered carefully, as to avoid some of the policy mistakes and distortions we have seen in the past.
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