J. Craig Venter Talks Life, Ego, Ambition — and Frankenstein

  • Share
  • Read Later
AP Photo/ Matt Houston

Biologist J. Craig Venter poses at his home in Alexandria, Va. on July 1, 2005.

Nearly 70 years ago, the famed Austria-born physicist Erwin Schrödinger — he of the maybe-dead cat — delivered a lecture at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. The title of the talk, "What Is Life?" was as remarkable as the time and place it was delivered — at the fringes of war-torn Europe in the spring of 1943. A TIME reporter was there, writing in our April 5, 1943 issue that "Cabinet ministers, diplomats, scholars and socialites loudly applauded a slight, Vienna-born professor of physics [who] has gone beyond the ambitions of any other mathematician."

Now, the equally ambitious J. Craig Venter — he of human genome fame — has retuned to the same celebrated venue to tackle the same ambitious topic. TIME was there again, this time in the person of Catherine Mayer, who sat down with Venter before his talk to discuss biology, policy, ambition, ego, the Nobel Prize and, yes, Frankenstein.

TIME: In 1943 Erwin Schrödinger gave a lecture called What Is Life? at Trinity College, Dublin. Later today you'll give a lecture called What Is Life? at Trinity College, Dublin. An homage?

Venter: I'm not a Schrödinger scholar, I'm a Schrödinger fan. Why are we celebrating Schrödinger and biology when he was a physicist? It's because his predictions were right, for the most part. A lot has happened in 70 years, and so I'm trying to show that modern science has answered most if not all the questions he was asking.

TIME:Still, you've sometimes appeared frustrated by how little has happened in that time.

Venter:Given the science budget that exists, we should all be upset. Also, science like any field is driven by prejudice. The discovery of DNA, the genetic material, could have happened 50 years sooner if it hadn't been for the bias and prejudice. People thought that proteins are so much more complex, therefore they have to be the genetic material.

TIME:How important do you think Schrodinger's lecture series actually was?

Venter:He spoke in a clear, understandable fashion, explaining very complex concepts in a way that people could grasp. That's so underrated in science, but it's so important. [Schrodinger] was apparently very good at it. In the cells, he was showing that they obeyed physical principles and that there had to be a code script, as he called it. As far as I can tell, it was the first attempt to say that code-script could be as simple as something like Morse code. We have trouble grasping that you can get all the complexity in the world from a 1 and a 0.

TIME:For some, science is replacing religion as a blind faith. You can see that trend clearly in the realm of "anti-aging" science.

Venter:I would say that's more like snake oil sales than faith. I don't want science to replace religion as a belief system other than the belief that truth matters. For politicians, facts and truths are fungible. For scientists' facts and truths are not fungible.

TIME:There's a constant tension in the science community between blue-sky research and commercially driven research aiming at practical, monetizable applications.

Venter:People do make that argument all the time, but I think it's a bullshit argument. It just totally is. It's one that people use to justify living in one world or the other. The fundamental discoveries quite often show their truth in the practical applications. Making atom bombs was, I guess, an applied application, but it was all based on fundamental science.

TIME:You were a poor student. So did your science bent come from your family rather than school?

Venter:I'm the first scientist in my entire generation of families that started back here in Ireland a long time ago. My father gave us maths quizzes at the dinner table. We did not have casual dinner conversations. Also, in my case, a rebellious attitude has probably been the most beneficial, although painful at times, trait in my life.

TIME:When you're approaching this huge mystery "what is life," can you, as a scientist, look at all of us in a sufficiently reductive way to answer the question?

Venter:I do confess that I probably have a unique perspective on life. Often sitting in airports or other places, I try to imagine people's genetic lineages.

TIME:That must be a useful way of distancing yourself when you have arguments.

Venter:I hadn't thought about it that way. I should try to do that more.

TIME:Your synthetic bacterium carries a genetically encoded quote from Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atom bomb — of all people. It says "See things not as they are, but as they might be." Why did you pick that?

Venter:It was a quote that he was supposedly given by his teacher. I thought it was a nice forward-looking statement. [He] was involved in developing the atom bomb, and I guess was hoping that there might be other uses than blowing people up.

TIME:One of the aspects of your current genetic research that people worry about is that it could go horribly wrong.

Venter:That's an unfounded worry. I'm writing a book on synthetic life now and going through all the history of vitalism [which posits that living things are materially different from nonliving things], and trying to understand, in my amateur way, the social anthropology of that kind of thinking. It basically was first clearly articulated by Mary Shelley [in Frankenstein].

TIME:It's a fantastic book, isn't it?

Venter:Oh yes, and the history of the writing of the book is even more interesting. All of this new science was coming up, with vivisection and trying to understand life. It had to be morally wrong to do that, and if you do this you'll pay a heavy price in the future.

TIME:That's changing, in odd ways. Vampires used to be frightening...

Venter:And now they're sexy.

TIME:But the Frankenstein story is also about the laws of unintended consequences.

Venter:When we made our announcement [of having created synthetic life in the laboratory], President Obama asked his new commission to look at this issue. They held major hearings and one thing that we've always stressed, and the commission report stresses it, is that as we understand life and can engineer and design life, we're building components to be able to terminate or limit the spread of any new life form. An example I give is the tens of millions of experiments that have been done since the 1970s, putting genes of every organism into E. Coli in laboratories, and there's never been a problem. The reason for that is the laboratory E. Coli has a chemical dependency. It can't survive outside that special lab medium.

TIME:Science fiction made fact.

Venter:The other thing you might have thought science-fiction, there's now little distinction between computer code and genetic code, and we readily convert one into another. So when we see what's a genome we're converting what we call the analogue DNA code into digital code. I've described that as digitizing biology. And when we make synthetic genomes, we're going the other way. So, we now have the ability to transmit life at the speed of light, just sending it through the computer. When we colonize Mars we could [transmit] a new organism to the colony on Mars. We're actually building what I call a digital biological converter, much in the same way a phone converts digital information into sound. You could email somebody a cell to make energy, to make food.


Venter:Only it's real now.

TIME:Where people used to have fantasies about cloning now, there are increasing numbers of people who believe they will be able to digitally upload themselves.

Venter:Well, you can digitally upload your genome. You can upload whatever information you have on you.

TIME:Is that immortality?

Venter:You may know that I've said that if you want immortality, do something meaningful during your life.

TIME:Nobody writes a profile of you without mentioning your love of high-adrenaline activities. Dicing with death can confer a sense of immortality.

Venter:I can see aspects of that, yes. It also just feels good.

TIME:Do you think you'll ever win a Nobel Prize?

Venter:I don't spend a lot of time thinking about. Everybody likes acknowledgment from your colleagues that what you've done is important. I've not been short of scientific awards. 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.

TIME:Do you read science fiction?

Venter:Early in my youth I used to enjoy Ray Bradbury, and I was definitely a Star Trek fan later on. Science fiction-based movies, when they are just fantasy, they're just boring. But when it's based on a tiny twist of reality of current science, that makes it very exciting. People talked about making synthetic cells in the 1800s. We are DNA software systems, [with] genetic code constantly driving new production of proteins. And proteins are simply robots that are chemically defined.

TIME:Have you just answered the question what is life?

Venter:More or less. You don't need to come to my lecture.

Time: Finally, you have a dog called Darwin. You don't have a cat called Schrödinger?

Venter: My son has a cat and he wanted to name it Schrödinger's Cat.

Time: You really are a family apart.

Venter:It must be genetic because there was no encouragement.