Creating an interesting and exciting profile of a scientist can sometimes be a challenge, but local geneticist J. Craig Venter’s quirks and science fiction-like discoveries seem to have made it a little easier.
Venter was profiled in a segment on CBS’s 60 Minutes last night. It talked about Venter’s announcement last summer that his J. Craig Venter Institute in La Jolla had created a completely synthetic cell, but it also spent a big chunk of time drumming up excitement by pointing to Venter’s “egotistical” and “adrenaline junkie” tendencies.
The piece opens with a shot of journalist Steve Kroft riding shotgun in Venter’s speeding convertible that kind of looks like the Batmobile. Kroft’s voiceover says, “If you have some type of stereotype of a scientist in your mind, Venter probably doesn’t fit it,” and then uses the fact that Venter scuba dives with sharks and sails a 95-foot research vessel as his examples for why Venter breaks the stereotypical scientist mold. (I think a few scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography might take issue with that assessment.)
Kroft also tried to play up Venter’s reputation for self-promotion and having an inflated ego, but Venter never seemed to completely bite. When Kroft asked Venter where he would rank himself in terms of scientific accomplishments, he responded, “It’s really hard to assess that yourself, but the teams we’ve had and what we’ve accomplished are certainly amongst the biggest discoveries in science.”
After four minutes of excitement-building and color-adding, the story comes to the point: Venter’s creation of a synthetic cell. He actually didn’t make the cell (more on that later), but more reprogrammed it, putting a genome he created inside. (Our genome is the complete collection of our DNA and defines who we are by dictating all of our physical traits and our body’s functions.)
Venter’s team wrote out the code for a genome on a computer and turned that code into a series of chemicals to make new DNA stands. It then subbed in those strands for a bacteria’s existing genome, in essence creating a new species. It’s like writing a piece of computer software that tells the computer what you want it to do — a comparison Venter drew during the interview.
“DNA is the software of life, there’s no question about it,” Venter said. “The key to our future on this planet is understanding how to write that software.”
The interview pointed out the range of ways these synthetic cells could be used (creating flu vaccines, modifying yeast to create anti-malaria drugs, or designing algae that can use carbon dioxide to produce oil). It didn’t include a funny — and potentially egotism-revealing — piece of information. Venter apparently wrote his own name, along with the names of his colleagues, into his cell’s genomic code. Using the letters that represent amino acids produced by the cell’s DNA, the team spelled out words like “CRAIGVENTER,” and stuck in quotes from James Joyce, including, “To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, and to re-create life out of life.”
Genome branding aside, the idea of a man-made cell has attracted some heavy debate. Venter got it on one side from scientists who said he shouldn’t claim the “first synthetic cell” accolade because he didn’t make the cell he put the DNA into from scratch (an argument that’s sort of akin to a purist’s take on using a store-bought pie crust).
On the other side, Venter heard ethical complaints about creating artificial life and the dangers that his technology could be exploited to make biological weapons or dangerous genetically enhanced species (this is where the science fiction excitement comes in).
In the 60 Minutes piece, Venter addressed those concerns, although his words weren’t exactly comforting.
“There’s no way I can guarantee other people that use these tools will do intelligent, safe experiments with them,” he said. “But I think the chance of evil happening with this would be pretty hard. …It is powerful technology, it’s something that needs to be monitored, absolutely.”
I thought one of the most interesting aspects of the profile was when Kroft brought up criticisms that Venter is “playing God” and then straight up asked him if he believed in God. In my experience, scientists don’t like to answer personal questions, but Venter gave an honest answer.
“Do you believe in God?” Kroft asked.
“No,” Venter said. “I believe the universe is far more wonderful than just assuming it was made by some higher power.”