A Perfect World IV: Venter

A Perfect World IV

Craig Venter

J. Craig Venter is the founder of Celera Genomics Corporation, the world’s largest laboratory for unraveling the precise order of any genome. He served as president and chief scientific officer of Celera for four years. In June 2000, Venter and the director of the publicly funded Human Genome Project stood together in a White House ceremony to mark their historic success at mapping the complete human genome. Venter also is the founder and chairman of the Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR), a not-for-profit genomics research institute.

"Uh oh. I’m definitely not a visual thinker. I have no visual memory whatsoever. If I close my eyes, I see no pictures at all. This painting is about the continued evolution of life, knowledge, hopefully of the planet, not necessarily by changing… I indeed do hope humans will change, but not by manufactured means necessarily. The brown is the earthy base. Yellow is enlightenment (a good enlightenment color). I don’t think this painting will sell for much. Definitely not Van Gogh’s wheat fields. This was a hard assignment."- Craig venter, Chairman, TIGR
Credit: Venter, © Trione, Andrews McMeel Publishing, [ copyright 2002, reprinted with picture by permission]

I generally create the kind of environment that I thrive in, and the components of that are right here at Celera. We’re dealing with one of the biggest, if not the biggest, science projects in the world. Right now we’re working to sequence the drosophila genome, the human genome, the mouse genome, and the rice genome. I’m surrounded by highly intelligent, highly motivated people, so there’s never a dull day. And there’s a higher purpose to what we’re doing — lots of them, actually. The nutshell one is that we’re trying to change society, change the future of humanity. So we have modest goals…

I hope for a world where disease is far less prevalent in people’s lives. And I also hope for a whole lot better control over population. We have to get there fairly soon. I’m actually more concerned about that than I am with curing disease. Some people claim that curing disease will contribute to increasing population. But, of course, the answer is not to let people die early deaths from disease, or starve to death as a means of controlling population. History has shown that improving the health of the population actually goes hand-in-hand with a decrease, not an increase, in birth rate.

The goal is not to prolong life but to change the quality of life during a normal life period. In the 1990s, five million people died from cancer in the United States, and obviously a lot of those were young people. That’s just one disease that has had a devastating impact. What we really want to do is empower individuals, give people information about their own genetic makeup that will give them power for the first time to understand their futures.

A few years ago we discovered genes that cause colon cancer. So by understanding the spelling changes in those genes, we can determine who has a very increased likelihood of getting colon cancer. That would be nice for them to know, because the treatment for colon cancer is highly effective if it’s caught early. If it’s not caught early, the effects are usually devastating, after a huge expense. If you knew you had a greatly increased chance of getting this cancer, you could get regular pre-diagnostic checks and find it early. And that’s just one of probably twenty or thirty thousand examples of how this information we’re finding can be used.

We’re going to soon have the complete genetic code of humans, and that means we’ll be starting from a new point of knowledge. At the start of this decade there were less than two thousand of the eighty thousand human genes known. And yet if you went to your physician, he had this view that he knew virtually everything there was to know about human biology. In actual fact, we’re still just coming out of the Dark Ages. I think genomics will be viewed historically as the turning point for that.

So, we’re raising the knowledge level in the world, and that will have all kinds of implications, most of them good. It will turn biology and medicine upside down, because we’ll have to explain all the biology, all the physiology, all the function of an organism, using the genetic components that we know are there. What the future would be like without genomic information is an important question to ask. It would be one of greatly increased fear and death from bacterial and parasitic disease.

I think the next few decades in science are going to be some of the most remarkable times we’ve ever had. It’s phenomenally exciting. We’re laying the foundation; DNA is the foundation of the future. If I felt that the negative aspects of this research was the principal outcome, we wouldn’t do this work. But my biggest concern about all this on the negative side is bad science and bad press — reporters who want to make sensational claims and scientists making marginal links that don’t hold up.

One diabolical scenario I can think of is for someone to genotype all people in prison for child molestation and find common changes in their genetic code. Then they could say, "Here’s the genotype for a child molester." And then they might go out and test the population, and say, "Since you have the genotype for child molestation, maybe we should lock you up in advance." I don’t think that kind of scenario is out of the question, but that definitely would be a result of bad, sloppy science. You may have the genotype for a child molester (if there is such a thing), but it’s still within your capacity to act on those urges or not. So, I think it will come down to fundamental questions about who we are as humans.

I don’t rule out that someday we’ll be trying to modify the human genetic code. At least, I think a lot of people will consider doing that, if they consider doing it now. Right now, even if people think they can do it, it absolutely shouldn’t be done, because we’re not smart enough yet. We don’t have enough fundamental knowledge to do it intelligently. Genes interact in vast networks. It’s not as simple as if you took the spark plug out of an engine and all of a sudden the engine didn’t work anymore.

But I don’t think manipulating the human genome would necessarily be fundamentally wrong. It depends on what the changes are and what the purpose is. I wouldn’t mind having a little slot where I could plug a better memory chip into my brain, just as I can with my computer.

The same tools we’re developing here are going to be key in helping to clean up the environment. We’ve done so much environmental damage that if we don’t start becoming more aware of it, there could be far more serious problems soon. It all links to the same things: overpopulation and overconsumption.

Author Profile: Debra Trione began work on "A Perfect World" in 1997 after serving on the President’s Council on Sustainable Development. During the 1980s she worked at Harvard University Press and as an editor at Harvard Medical School.

Related Web Pages

A Perfect World I: Tyson
A Perfect World II: Richardson
A Perfect World III: Goldin
A Perfect World IV: Venter
A Perfect World V: Hendricks
A Perfect World VI: Fuller
A Perfect World : Booksite
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