By Roxann Elliott
His was the first complete, 6-billion-letter individual human genome to ever be published; and tonight, he delivered an illuminating keynote speech to students, researchers, and at least one wayward journalist at the Macky Auditorium.
J. Craig Venter had the honor of commencing the CU Museum of Natural History’s conference, “The Meaning of Names: Naming Diversity in the 21st Century.”
Venter is a vanguard figure in genome research, and is perhaps best known for leading the team that sequenced the first human genome years before the project’s anticipated completion.
“It’s a huge deal for us to have him here and to speak,” Antonette Hrycyk, a graduate student in the museum studies program who works with the CU Museum of Natural History confirmed. “We’re kind of a small but mighty museum, and to have a name like this come is really big for us.”
The CU Museum of Natural History aims to make the work of various disciplines accessible to CU students and the community. Beyond this week’s conference, which is open and free to the public, the museum is featuring lectures in October about Vikings in North America and the diversity of caterpillar species in Colorado.
As Venter’s presentation began, dean of the graduate school, John Stevenson, offered some historical context, “The CU Museum of Natural History actually dates back to 1902 when an unemployed intellectual decided that CU needed to start collecting things.”
It appears the museum is out to collect big names in the research community, as well. Beyond his more widely publicized accomplishments, Venter is seeking to isolate a strain of algae that could produce oil on a commercial scale.
His most recent work, and the topic of tonight’s lecture, focuses on “synthetic life,” or man-made organisms. The subject is further detailed in Venter’s book “Life at the Speed of Light.
“He’s one of the most cited scientists in the world,” Patrick Kociolek, director of the museum, noted as part of Venter’s introduction.
To his credit, Venter was well aware of his audience and the common threads connecting the most technologically versed with the broader community.
“The key questions around this have always been – all of you have asked this question, your kids have asked this question, your parents have – did I get this trait from my mother, or from my father? Did I give this trait to my child?” Venter mused as he began, “Did my funny nose come from my – obviously my wife’s side of the family.”
The team at the Venter Institute was the first to produce a lab-created organism when they combined sections of DNA into a full genome and inserted the resultant genome into a bacterial cell. The bacteria, Mycoplasma mycoides, recognized the lab-assembled DNA and proceeded to function as normal.
The implications of Venter’s research are nearly unfathomable. He hopes to one day make it possible to transmit genetic data digitally, thus allowing researchers across the globe to “download” and “print” their own sample organisms.
Venter even suggested it might allow space probes, such as future Mars rovers, to sequence the DNA of alien organisms and transmit the data to Earth where the organism can be reconstructed.
Ultimately, though, Venter’s goals are altogether more terrestrial – and human. When researchers in China analyzed the H7N9 “avian” flu and made it available online March 31, 2013, Venter’s team stepped up:
“April 1st we saw the synthesis of a synthetic version of this, and by the end of the week we had something ready to go into vaccine production at the major facility that Novartis had built in North Carolina.”
As a result of the Venter Institute’s work, Novartis was able to produce a vaccine and commence clinical trials months sooner than would have been possible through the traditional chicken egg vaccine production system.
Of course, the technology is firmly in its infancy. Questions remain, and more than a few people hold reservations about engineering synthetic organisms. Still, whether exciting or frightening, Venter’s research continues to shape and challenge the scientific community.