The Meaning of Life — According to Geneticist J. Craig Venter

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Eli Meir Kaplan / The Washington Post / Getty Images

J. Craig Venter talks with Li Ma, the scientist who made the initial transfers of synthetic cell materials at the J. Craig Venter Institute.

On the evening of July 12, Ireland's Enda Kenny, the Prime Minister — or Taioseach, in the proper Gaelic — was running late, delayed a few minutes by affairs of state. The 400-strong audience, squeezed onto rows of doll-size chairs in the Examination Hall of Trinity College, Dublin, waited placidly. What, after all, did a few minutes matter, when the scientific world had waited almost 70 years for an event of this magnitude?

In 1943, the Austrian-born physicist Erwin Schrödinger delivered a lecture at Trinity applying the principles of his own field to the foreign territory of biology. His purpose was to tackle the biggest question of all: what is life? He told his audience of 400, among them the then-Taoiseach Eamon de Valera, that the filaments in cells called chromosomes must contain "some kind of code-script" determining "the entire pattern of the individual's future development." This hypothesis would inspire the scientists James D. Watson and Francis Crick to seek that code-script. A mere decade later, they published a revolutionary article describing the double helix structure of what we now familiarly call DNA, explaining how it stores hereditary information. Their discovery underpins all modern genetics.

The idea of restaging Schrödinger's momentous lecture for a 21st century audience arose after Dublin won the right to host the 2012 Euroscience Open Forum, a privilege Ireland's Chief Scientific Advisor Prof. Patrick Cunningham compares to securing the Olympics for the Irish capital. TIME reported on the original lecture in its April 5, 1943 issue. "Only in the precarious peace of Eire could Europe today provide such a spectacle," our un-bylined reporter wrote. "At Dublin's Trinity College last month crowds were turned away from a jampacked scientific lecture. Cabinet ministers, diplomats, scholars and socialites loudly applauded a slight, Vienna-born professor of physics."

The time and the place of Schrödinger's talk — not to mention the international coverage it received — is important to Dubliners even today. "One of the things that's quite remarkable for us," says Cunningham, "is that in middle of the war, on the fringes of Europe, a magazine operating in the U.S. thought that this was something of sufficient consequence to write about it."

But how to find a modern scientist willing to tackle again a theme of such blinding magnitude? Who'd be prepared to endure comparison with the legendary Schrödinger — and not worry about the hubris of doing so? Which egghead possessed the intellectual capacity to give such a lecture and the communication skills to make its content accessible to the public?

Step up to the podium J. Craig Venter, the American geneticist who sparked the race to map the human genome and, despite a White House-brokered deal in 2000 to declare his small, private team and the government-funded Human Genome Project joint winners, is widely acknowledged to have edged out his competition. Ten years later, Venter announced an achievement that by his own estimation makes mapping the human genome "pale by comparison." He created synthetic life in a laboratory, by building the genome of a bacterium and inserting it into an existing host cell that had been stripped of its original DNA.

He told this tale during his own What Is Life? lecture, recounting how he watermarked the genome in order to demonstrate that the colony of bright blue bacteria multiplying in Petri dishes was indeed following the genetic instructions Venter had written. It would be hard to argue otherwise given that each new cell carried identifying codes that included Venter's name and a series of three quotes — one from Dublin's famous son, James Joyce: "To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life." The Joyce estate, learning of this unusual use of the author's work, protested that Venter had not asked permission.

Venter has often elicited hostile responses, not least from within the scientific community. Watson, who shared the 1962 Nobel prize for his groundbreaking work on DNA, attacked Venter's first successes at using an automated process to sequence genomes quickly. The sequencing machines, he sniffed, "could be run by monkeys." The distinguished science journalist John Horgan, writing on Scientific American's Cross-check blog, described Venter as "the Lady Gaga of science. Like her, he is a drama queen, an over-the-top performance artist with a genius for self-promotion," and dismissed Venter's synthetic bacteria as "just another incremental step in the human manipulation of life." A profile in Forbes by Matthew Herper, dubbed Venter "the Bono of genetics," sniping that "he warps the reality field around genetic research through sheer force of ego and showmanship."

And yet Venter endures. Say what you will about his synthetic bacterium, no one else has achieved such a feat. And he is pressing on with other projects, more recently engineering a type of algae that is yellow rather than dark green, enabling light to pass through it so it can grow in greater density — providing what he hopes will be an ideal raw material for biofuel.

A few hours before his lecture, the Bono of genetics sat down with TIME in Dublin's Clarence Hotel, which is co-owned by the Bono of U2. Stocky like the Irish musician and with a rock star's predilection for fast motors and private yachts, Venter in some respects lives up to his flamboyant reputation. But just as with the cell structures that are his obsession, the more closely you study him, the more evident his complexities become.

A perennial outsider — "a rebellious attitude has probably been the most beneficial, although painful at times, trait in my life," he confesses — he never worked comfortably within the scientific establishment. That, however, can sometimes be a good thing. He came away from a stint at the U.S. National Institutes of Health with some hard insights into the failings of taxpayer-funded institutions and projects. "Given the science budget that exists, we should all be upset that far more hasn't been achieved," he remarks. He also takes a swipe at the U.S. education system, which he says focuses too heavily on good grades (he was a C-student) and so "weeds out a lot of the creativity in the human population."

There are occasional swipes at his critics too. ("I'd rather continue what I'm doing and being able to do high-end science, than if I'd gotten a Nobel Prize 50 years ago and basically retired," he says, answering a question about whether he harbors ambitions to win the prize that has eluded him — but was awarded to Watson precisely 50 years back.) Nonetheless, the quality that is most striking about Venter is his belief in the power of science to transform the world for the better, not least by solving the resource shortages that science, by allowing greater numbers of humans to live longer, helped to create in the first place.

"Optimists are the ones that get things done," he says. "Because, in science, if you're not optimistic about the outcome then you'll never do the experiment. Pessimists talk themselves out of doing the experiment, and therefore don't make any progress."

Progress is Venter's grail and he's impatient with the people and "prejudices" that slow progress, such as the once-widespread assumption that protein was what carried the code in genetic material. Venter himself is driven by another kind of code-script. Again like Bono, he's a latter-day missionary, with elements of self aggrandizement, yes, but also creative impulses and curiosity and even, say it softly, humanitarianism. He may enjoy his fame-cum-notoriety, but he also sees it as a way to get his message across. And he isn't interested in a closed conversation with other scientists. "The obligation to explain science to the public [is] an absolute, essential part of being a scientist," he says.

And so Venter accepted the challenge to follow in Schrödinger's footsteps, knowing the lecture at Trinity would be live-streamed and blogged and reported more widely than any ordinary academic talk. He shared with this massively expanded audience his overview of the breakthroughs that, since Schrödinger bestrode the same podium, he believes to be transformational. There is the concept of "digitizing biology" for one, uploading the details of genetic codes and sending them via computers, making possible, for example, the rapid manufacture of vaccines at the point of outbreak of an epidemic. There is the effort to synthesize every part of a cell, something that Venter and multiple other scientists are exploring. Venter also ventured to give a scientific answer to the question posed by the title of the lecture: "All living cells that we know of on this planet are DNA software — driven biological machines comprised of hundreds of thousands of protein robots, coded for by the DNA, that carry out precise functions."

During the lecture, Venter's old adversary Watson, now 84 and in Dublin for the Euroscience Open Forum, sat in the audience, next to Taoiseach Kenny. After Venter concluded, Watson climbed slowly on to the stage, shook his hand and congratulated him on "a beautiful speech." Did he mean it? Did he not? Only he knows. Venter may be right that scientists will soon be able to create life, but we may be no closer to understanding it — especially the human kind.