Q&A: Craig Venter's Next Quest

Craig Venter is the rude boy of molecular biology. He made himself famous by decoding the human genome faster and cheaper than anyone expected, beating a team of rivals led by the U.S. National Institutes of Health. Since then, Venter has spent much of his time aboard Sorcerer II, his high-tech research vessel, trolling the seas in search of new proteins. The findings will be helpful, he says, on his next project: synthesizing a living organism from a handful of inert chemicals. If he succeeds, he'll be able to turn cells into biochemical factories that can churn out biofuels. NEWSWEEK's Barrett Sheridan spoke with him by phone from Edinburgh, Scotland, on the problems and potential of synthetic biology. Excerpts:

SHERIDAN: Synthetic biology has the potential to revolutionize many fields. Why have you chosen to focus on energy?
VENTER: Energy is probably the most pressing demand on our planet. We're designing fuels that will be, we think, much better fuels [than what we have now], because they don't depend on oil and coal.

Like cellulosic ethanol, which can be made from waste products instead of corn?
Well no, actually. I think cellulosic ethanol is going to be a very short-term phenomenon. When most people talk about biofuels they talk about using oils or grease from plants. We're talking about something made truly synthetically through biochemical processes, maybe starting with sugar, or starting with sunlight.

Deriving a fuel that can power automobiles from sunlight alone sounds farfetched. What's the time frame?
I just turned 60, [my colleague] Ham Smith is in his mid-70s. We'd like to see it happen in our lifetimes, so we're in a hurry. If we can't achieve something substantial in the next five years, then it's probably not the right direction to be going in.

You had success in decoding the human genome, but struggled to make money off it. What makes you think you'll be successful this time?
The fuel market is a trillion-dollar industry. Even having a small portion of that is very high value. And we don't have all the hurdles that the pharmaceutical industry has. To make a new drug, we're talking about a 12- to 15-year horizon. With energy, we're talking about a two- to five-year horizon. I think the economic impact, if there's really something to this field, will start to be noticed soon.

Where do you think the money for this research will come from?
Unfortunately, the U.S. government is doing virtually nothing. The current administration doesn't seem to think biology will have much of an influence on the fuel issue. I'm 100 percent convinced they're wrong. We're having very good luck raising private capital. It's interesting, the initial capital for Synthetic Genomics [Venter's for-profit company], three fourths of it came from outside the U.S. They come from Mexico, Panama, Costa Rica, countries that are looking for this new field to transform the economy of their country. The rich agricultural nations are the ones that can adapt to the new biotechnologies.

But you've criticized big government programs like the Human Genome Project in the past. Isn't that contradictory?
There's not going to be any one replacement for oil: we need to have hundreds of solutions to this global issue. I think a government human genome-type project would be a massive mistake, but putting those kinds of resources into thousands of labs is absolutely the right thing to do. At a recent meeting in Washington, including European and global leaders in the field, I admonished both the European Union and the U.S. government for talking a good case but doing virtually nothing about it.

You released the findings from your ocean expedition to the public, but I imagine you'll patent any synthetic organisms you succeed in creating.
We're certainly patenting all the methods we're making, because we've had to create all these processes ourselves. Obviously, if we made an organism that produced fuel, that could be the first billion- or trillion-dollar organism. We would definitely patent that whole process.

You'd be foolish to do otherwise. But if you're creating an organism worth trillions of dollars, there will be lots of competition.
I'm actually hoping that there will be a lot of other companies. We need a solution quickly and there's no guarantee that my team will come up with it. But we are competitive animals, and we would certainly like to get there before others.

Environmental groups are afraid that you'll push the limits too far.
Obviously people get nervous about making new organisms. But we absolutely can make sure that they're organisms that don't grow outside the laboratory. That was an issue with molecular biology early on, and out of the millions of experiments that have been done in the last several decades, there never has been one issue with it.

The pope has also criticized synthetic biology, calling it "insane arrogance." Is your work a threat to religion?
There are so many threats to religion that I don't think we'll be at the forefront. I don't think what we're doing will influence anybody's belief or nonbelief in God, but I think it will be a threat to what some religions have tried to base things on.