Craig Venter

Bradley Fikes and I spent the afternoon at UCSD to hear Craig Venter speak. I was not disappointed. I wrote the first review on Amazon of his autobiography and he knew this today, commenting that it was the most credited as “helpful.” His accomplishments go well beyond medicine although that seems to be the part that fascinates reporters.

He discussed the sequencing of the genome but the most important part is the environmental potential of his work. For example, the methanobacteria are now properly known as Methanococci as they are now known to be a member of Archaea, a new kingdom of life. If you really want to know about Archaea,
this is the source
, although a PDF version can be downloaded and printed. These organisms can exist at the extremes of nature, such as steam vents on the ocean floor.

Some of them are capable of regenerating oil or natural gas from CO2. Some can metabolize coal in underground deposits and release methane gas. Some can metabolize sulfuric acid and release metallic sulfur and water. Some bacteria can generate nanowires and potentially function as a battery with electricity generation from animal waste.

Some of them will take up uranium and some may even be able to metabolize radioactive elements. Some may function as a bacterial fuel cell. Some of these fuel cells involve bacteria with nanowires. These systems are getting close to practical use.

The great advantage of all of these systems is that energy inputs are far less than the inorganic equivalent, such as burning or conversion to ethanol of plant substrate. The bacterial systems can convert the substrate directly to methane or a higher carbon molecule by enzyme action that takes place at ambient temperature.

Methane has one carbon. Ethane has two and octane, the ideal form of gasoline, has eight. These systems may be the way to refine tar sands or high sulfur crude oil that is not yet economical to use as fuel. Some of them will make fuel from waste. Some may even reduce nuclear waste to safe deposits that do not require isolation.

Right now, Venter is working on ways to analyze the genome of organisms with exotic properties and transfer the gene to more common or faster growing organisms. His company is called Synthetic Genomics. and is in southern California. He has other companies in the east but this application is more important, I think, than the medical applications right now. He calls it “digitizing life” and says that creating a synthetic chromosome is not difficult. The problem is “rebooting it.” He is about to announce an artificial bacterium and I thought the announcement might come today. It will be soon.

We’ll see what the next steps are.

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6 Responses to “Craig Venter”

  1. Eric Blair says:

    Dear Dr. K….

    I’m glad you had a great time. I can recommend two books about the wonderful world of the archaea:

    1. “The Third Domain: the Untold Story of Archaea and the Future of Biotechnology,” Tim Friend, Joseph Henry Press, DC., 2007.

    2. “Physiology and Biochemistry of Extremophiles,” C Gerday and N. Glandsdorff, editors. April 2007. American Society for Microbiology Press, DC.

    The first book is a GREAT place to start. Friend is a good science writer. And the subject will be of great importance, as you point out.

  2. doombuggy says:

    Some of this sounds almost too good to be true.

  3. Eric Blair says:

    Well, DB, it is too good to be true. But it will help. There is always a middle course between negativity and optimism. I have many friends who work with archaeans, and I can promise that their grant proposals will save the world.

    They won’t.

    But they will make things better. And harnessing ancient, ancient single celled life to make things better? Isn’t that better than polluting and laying waste?

    And the weird thing? I don’t know of a single human disease caused by archaeans. There is some evidence that they participate in peridontal disease, but nothing like the pathogenic abilities of bacteria and viruses!

  4. Eric Blair says:

    Actually, I wish I was younger (and smarter). Working for someone like Venter would be a great thing.

    On the other hand, I got to see the early stages of the Biological Revolution. Not so bad!

  5. I do too. I look at him and think that I was about 10 years too soon. I was telling Bradley that I came to a decision point in medical school. I had pathology people wanting me to stay in that field and do research. I thought about it a lot. I had no mentors in surgery. The problem was that we were at such a primitive stage of things. We were just beginning to study the cell membrane. Everybody was studying soap bubbles. We knew almost nothing about lipid membranes. I remember it was a big deal that poking a sea urchin egg with a micro pipette would cause it to divide. Nobody knew cell biology. I doubt I would have done as well as Venter because, like Bill Gates, he had a rare combination of science genius and business talent. Still, it is something to see what he has accomplished.

  6. doombuggy says:

    I had meant to make a positive post, but it came across as a negative.

    I think often of BF Skinner in the early 70s, when he was pushing his ‘science of human behavior’. He was often approached by negative people, who wondered why we needed more science, when so far science had given us nuclear bombs and pollution. Skinner would point out that we can only get out of our predicaments by the application of more science and technology.