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Craig Venter

I’m heading off to the Foresight Conference and then a pilgrimage to the Venter Institute. (This photo by Ronnie Antik is from TED earlier this year.)


Full disclosure: in all of my prior writing and blogging about Craig Venter (from TED, our life sciences conference and elsewhere), we had no economic ties to him, and working with him was just a dream. He now has a company called Synthetic Genomics, which I am very excited about, and we just became investors, and I joined the Board.


For the curious or those as equally excitable as I, here is a summary of that earlier blogging:


Craig Venter set sail around the world to shotgun sequence the millions of viruses and bacteria in every spoonful of sea water. From the first five ocean samples, this team grew the number of known genes on the planet by 10x and the number of genes involved in solar energy conversion by 100x. The ocean microorganisms have evolved over a longer period of time and have pathways that are more efficient than photosynthesis.


Another discovery: every 200 miles across the open ocean, the microbial genes are up to 85% different. The oceans are not homogenous masses. They consist of myriad uncharted regions of ecological diversity… and the world’s largest digital database.


From the collection of digital genomes, we are learning to decode and reprogram the information systems of biology. Like computer hackers, we can leverage a prior library of evolved code, assemblers and subsystems. Many of the radical applications lie outside of medicine.


At the Venter Institute, Craig Venter and Hamilton Smith are leading the Minimal Genome Project. They take the Mycoplasma genitalium from the human urogenital tract, and strip out 200 unnecessary genes, thereby creating the simplest synthetic organism that can self-replicate (at about 300 genes). They plan to layer new functionality on to this artificial genome – to make a solar cell or to generate hydrogen from water using the sun’s energy for photonic hydrolysis – by splicing cassettes of novel genes discovered in the oceans for energy conversion from sunlight.


Venter explains: “Creating a new life form is a means of understanding the genome and understanding the gene sets. We don’t have enough scientists on the planet, enough money, and enough time using traditional methods to understand the millions of genes we are uncovering. So we have to develop new approaches… to understand empirically what the different genes do in developing living systems.”


The limiting factor is our understanding of these complex systems, but our pace of learning has been compounding exponentially. We will learn more about genetics and the origins of disease in the next 10 years than we have in all of human history. And for the minimal genome microbes, the possibility of understanding the entire proteome and metabolic pathways seems tantalizingly close to achievable. These simpler organisms have a simple “one gene : one protein” mapping, and lack many of the nested loops of feedback that make the human genome so rich (and humbling… When burned on a CD, the human genome is smaller than Microsoft Office).


Much of our future context will be defined by the accelerating proliferation of information technology – as it innervates society and begins to subsume matter into code. It is a period of exponential growth in the learning/experimentation/feedback cycle where the power of biotech, infotech and nanotech compounds the advances in each formerly discrete domain.


And it should be a wonderful time for explorers like Craig Venter – sailing through the frontiers of the unknown – and for the curious, in an era that will feel like an innovation Renaissance.

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Taken on September 14, 2005