What I got out of listening to Craig Venter at The Long Now Foundation lecture last Monday night is a couple of perception shifts about life on Earth that sort of make the hair on the back of my neck stand up. You have to understand that Venter is a guy who has no qualms about busting through to new areas of life science without looking for permission or waiting for people to be ready. He made a horse race out to the Human Genome Project in the late ’90s by bringing new approaches to sequencing the human genome that competed with the government-sponsored, university-based project. So when he talks about something new you can expect he’ll be making it happen."Damn the torpedoes!"
What he’s into now is sequencing the microbiome. The microbiome is
the genomes of microbes–mainly bacteria, fungi, and viruses–that we
big organisms live with. Doesn’t sound too exciting, but some facts he
mentions in his lectures put the microbiome in a different light.
First, half the biomass on the earth comes from microbes,
things you can’t see without a microscope. So where are they? They’re
everywhere including inside us and every other big animal and plant on
earth. According to Venter there are 1,000 species in our mouths,
another 1,000 in our guts, another 500 on our skins, and 500 species in
vaginas…if you have one. There are about 10 times the number of
microbes in and on us as cells in our bodies! So that means, no matter
how much you scrub you hands or use Purell, you are constantly immersed
in microbes. We have our own ecosystem of microbes that, fortunately,
live in harmony with us most of the time. They are part of our
digestive process and secrete chemicals that appear in our blood in
significant quantities. So you might as well give up that germ phobia.
Venter’s research institute is heading up the complete sequencing of the human microbiome.
You can imagine that having direct relevance to medicine. But he’s
going way beyond that. Four years ago Venter turned his yacht into a
research boat, sailed it around the world collecting samples of sea water
every 200 miles. They filtered out all the microbes in each sample and
sequenced their genomes. Each milliliter of sea water contains on
average one million bacteria and 10 million viruses. So next time you
go to the beach and swallow a teaspoon of the sea, that’s what you’re
getting. Fortunately, again, the vast majority of microbes don’t care
about us…or we’d be dead.
Microbes live in abundance in parts of the ocean thought to be
virtually sterile. They live down so deep that they can’t use sunlight
for energy like other organisms. There’s even a rich microbe world
living in coal seams a mile down in the Earth’s crust. This means life
processes unlike what we’re familiar with in the part of world we can
see have been around for millions or perhaps billions of years. For 3.5
billion years evolution has been generating not just mainstream animals
and plants but alternative ways to live we’re just beginning to become
What Venter is doing is being the first to collect, sequence, and
store in databases the DNA from all those organisms. There are millions
of unique gene sequences that are only being cataloged now. With that
DNA he is aggressively pursuing the flip-side of DNA sequencing: synthetic genomics.
He is demonstrating that artificial DNA sequences from "off-the-shelf"
elementary chemicals work inside of microorganisms just as well as
sequences gained from reproduction. The organisms and cells don’t know
the difference. So it is perfectly possible to synthesize DNA sequences
out of a database and insert them into organisms and see expected
changes in function. He has done that. So essentially each gene
sequence is a building block with which whole synthetic chromosomes can
be built and inserted in organisms to have them produce what you want.
The bottom line, according to Venter, is that soon we–or at least,
he–will have a database of 10 million nature-tested building blocks
from which he will design DNA sequences for planned results. He and
others are already doing the first demonstrations of what the potential
is. Producing cancer-fighting drugs is one distinct possibility.
This is where my hair stood up. Venter says a highly disruptive
technology for designing life forms is on its way sooner than most
people think. It’s one of those technologies that has vast potential
for good and, of course, evil. Sadly, at least in my perception of the
human condition, we’re going to get both. At least we shouldn’t be