Field of Science

The leap forward

In 5 to 10 years, I could walk into a doctor's office and for less than 1000$ have my genome sequenced. This could tell me how likely I am to get Alzheimer's disease, cancer or heart disease. Such possibilities open up enormous technical, legal and moral challenges.

That this would be possible in 5 to 10 years is what Craig Venter says. Coming from a lesser man this would seem like wishful speculation, but Venter is the man who single-handedly raced the government to "shotgun" sequencing the human genome and he has a knack of turning dreams into reality. If there's one word to describe Venter it's "big". Even after the human genome the man has not rested on his laurels. Over the last few years he has trawled the seven seas in his boat, gathering marine water samples everywhere and analyzing them for interesting bacteria and unusual DNA sequences. Genetically engineering these bugs could give us organisms that could mop up CO2, that would produce biofuels. Recently Venter has teamed up with Exxon (who could imagine!) for investigating genetically engineered algae that would produce hydrocarbons for transportation fuel.

Venter aims to have a unique genomic sequencing facility where he can sequence the genome of almost any organism one can think of. The computational and sequencing power in this facility is incredible and it seems to get bigger and more efficient every day. Here he shows the facility and has a conversation about it with Richard Dawkins. Venter says that mammalian genes are no longer very interesting because they don't show that much variation compared to some other genomes such as insect and bacterial genomes. Right now Venter has a room full of sequencers and behind a secret curtain he already has a large sequencer that would replace this entire room. The rate at which the technology is growing is breathtaking. This is a one of a kind tour and the entire video is worth watching. When Dawkins asks Venter if he is trying to "play God", Venter quips that he "does not play mythological characters"...

I would very strongly recommend Venter's autobiography. His journey from a careless, unfocused, fun-loving teenager who, shaped by harrowing experiences as a medic in Vietnam brought pin point focus to his career is amazing. Venter has been called reckless, audacious, arrogant, egoistic, curt and apathetic, and to be honest all these qualities shine forth on many pages of his book (however he appears pretty modest and engaging in most of his interviews including the one above). He has managed to alienate many people who he worked with (as someone quipped, he will never win a rightly deserved Nobel prize because of his personality traits). But it doesn't matter; he is a born entrepreneur and he is nothing but brilliant and ambitious, an intrepid risk taker. He is one of those people who will bulldoze his way through problems and not care what other people think. Nobody has accomplished what he has.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Markup Key:
- <b>bold</b> = bold
- <i>italic</i> = italic
- <a href="">FoS</a> = FoS