SPIEGEL Interview with Craig Venter 'We Have Learned Nothing from the Genome'

The world's first bacteria with a synthetic genome was even coded with an e-mail address.
Science / AAAS

The world's first bacteria with a synthetic genome was even coded with an e-mail address.

Part 3: 'We Don't Need Any More Neanderthals on the Planet'

SPIEGEL: Many fear what might happen if humans craft new life forms. They repeatedly say that you are playing God …

Venter: Yes, and I find them frightening. I can read your genome, you know? Nobody's been able to do that in history before. But that is not about God-like powers, it's about scientific power. The real problem is that the understanding of science in our society is so shallow. In the future, if we want to have enough water, enough food and enough energy without totally destroying our planet, then we will have to be dependent on good science.

SPIEGEL: Some scientist don't rule out a belief in God. Francis Collins, for example …

Venter: … That's his issue to reconcile, not mine. For me, it's either faith or science - you can't have both.

SPIEGEL: So you don't consider Collins to be a true scientist?

Venter: Let's just say he's a government administrator.

SPIEGEL: When can we anticipate seeing the next tailor-made microbes from your laboratory?

Venter: Well, the goal is multifold. We have to start by creating minimal cells. A human cell is too complex -- we have no idea how any human cell works. We don't even know how the simplest bacterial cell works. We want to learn what the minimum cellular components are, so we're going to be taking out all the non-essential genes. But we're also trying to design new life forms for energy production, capturing carbon dioxide or to produce chemicals.

SPIEGEL: Wouldn't it be easier to modify existing bacteria using the established methods of biotechnology?

Venter: It isn't that simple. For example, there is no other way of creating a minimal cell. You can only add or take out genes at will if you have built the genome from scratch.

SPIEGEL: How long does it take to create such new forms of cells?

Venter: Right now we have the technology to make several a day, and the goal is to make a million a day.

SPIEGEL: How long will it be until the life forms you have created start producing fuel for our cars?

Venter: Not only gasoline. Plastic, asphalt, heating oil: Everything that we make from oil will at some point be made by bacteria or other cells. Whether that is in five, 10 or 20 years is unclear. Why don't we have fuel now other than alcohol from microbes? It's because nothing evolved that can produce great amounts of biofuel out of CO2. That's why we have to make it.

SPIEGEL: ExxonMobile, at the very least, appears to be convinced by your vision …

Venter: … yes, they are investing $600 million in the project, with half going to our partnership. It's a good round number. It's the same money that PerkinElmer gave me to decode the human genome. With it, we sequenced the human genome in nine months instead of many, many years. The public money that flowed into the Human Genome Project, above all, created an enormous, inflexible bureaucracy. And it is only because of private money that we can now sail across the ocean with this sailboat and discover 40 million genes -- there are only 41 million genes known to all of science. All you need are a few innovative ideas and independent funding to allow you to do things that other people can only dream about.

SPIEGEL: It took eight years from the time the first bacterial genome was decoded until the human genome was completed. How much time will elapse between the creation of the first synthetic bacteria and the creation of the first synthetic human?

Venter: There is currently no reason for us to synthesize human cells. I am, for example, a fan of the work that was done a short time ago that led to the decoding of the Neanderthal genome. But we don't need any more Neanderthals on the planet, right? We already have enough of them.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Venter, we thank you for this interview.

Interview conducted by Rafaela von Bredow and Johann Grolle

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