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By Douglas McGray
Issue 10.12 - December 2002
FIRST CRAIG VENTER CRACKED THE HUMAN GENOME. NOW HE WANTS TO SEQUENCE THE
OCEAN AND SAVE THE WORLD.
J. Craig Venter is used to confronting (and confounding) skeptics. In 1998,
he raised eyebrows with his bold promise to sequence the human genome and
do it faster than a government team with an eight-year head start and $3
billion in federal money. Using only venture capital, he delivered in less
than three years -- and got rich off his method of "shotgun sequencing." But
his company, Celera, flopped, finding few buyers for the genomic data it
hoped to sell. The biotech firebrand's latest idea seems even more
fantastic. From the Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives, one of
three nonprofits he launched in 2002, Venter describes a new application for
shotgun sequencing: to engineer supermicrobes that, harnessed by
bioreactors, will scrub CO2 emissions, converting them into hydrogen -- and
clean air. Take a breath: Venter plans to crank out 100 million sequences a
ANTHONY HAMBOUSSI FOR WIRED: Sequencing the human genome has been compared
to landing on the moon. How would you describe your next project?
VENTER: The potential for this is, well, I guess you'd have to go back to a
Superman movie -- it's to save the planet.
WIRED: So what's your plan?
VENTER: The goal is to engineer a new species of microorganism from scratch
-- to improve metabolic function by orders of magnitude so that we can make
biological CO2 scrubbers for power plants. The organism's genetic structure
would allow it to exist only in a specialized environment, so if it ever got
outside, it would immediately die.
WIRED: How big would this environment have to be?
VENTER: Based on the metabolic rates of existing microorganisms, you'd
probably need something the size of an ocean. But if we can boost metabolic
processes 1,000-fold, we can reduce carbon volumes 1,000-fold. Many
biological processes have been sped up 10,000-fold or greater. I think it
has to get down to a swimming pool-sized environment for a power plant, or a
reactor that size.
WIRED: And that pool full of microbes could potentially produce hydrogen gas
on the side for fuel cells?
VENTER: If we had between 100- and 1,000-fold amplification, hydrogen gas
would be bubbling out of these things like crazy.
WIRED: When you say engineer a new species from scratch, you mean something
substantially different from, say, manipulating crop genes or modifying
goats to spin spider silk?
VENTER: That's relatively trivial, everyday molecular biology. This is
trying to see if we can define life based on first principles -- these are
the genes required for metabolism to produce energy, these are the ones
required to make the cell wall work, and so forth.
WIRED: Once you've got the microbes, then what?
VENTER: We're using the techniques I developed for sequencing the genome.
Traditionally, biologists have taken concentrated microbes and tried to grow
different species out of them.
If they could grow a species, they studied it. That's how we've missed
probably 99.9 percent of what's out there. Instead of starting out looking
for species, we're going to take the DNA we find in one part of the ocean --
whether it lives or dies in a captive environment -- sequence it, and then
use the computer to separate that into different species. We'll be able to
describe what they look like and what they do. Nobody's tried anything like
this before. It's a whole new way of looking at the environment.
WIRED: Kind of like sequencing the population of New York and sorting out
who's who from the code?
VENTER: Yeah, exactly!
WIRED: How many organisms will you sequence at once?
VENTER: At the beach, a milliliter of surface water will typically contain 1
million bacteria and 10 million viruses. Think about that next time you fall
off your surfboard and take a big swallow of seawater. In different parts of
the ocean it varies. We're going to start the experiment with the Sargasso
Sea [in the North Atlantic]. The Sargasso is nutrient-poor, so the number of
species there and the density of life is much lower. Later, we plan to test
whether we can take all the DNA from one of Yellowstone's volcanic pools and
work out what's in there.
WIRED: Why hasn't anyone else done this?
VENTER: It would have been inconceivable to most scientists even five years
ago; they would have said it's impossible in terms of the processing power.
Now, we think the Sargasso Sea experiment of sequencing every organism in
the ocean will take about a week.
WIRED: So you need shotgun sequencing, plus some pretty significant
VENTER: We're building an extremely large, state-of-the-art sequencing
center with a higher capacity than anything existing today. It will
ultimately be capable of more than 100 million sequences a year. Keep in
mind that 26 million gave us the human genome. We're going to be trying some
new technologies that might allow us to get information on maybe 10,000
genomes an hour in the microbial world.
WIRED: Where is your funding coming from?
VENTER: The seed money is from the J. Craig Venter Science Foundation. And
we've received a $3 million grant from the Department of Energy for the
energy institute -- they're pretty excited about these processes.
WIRED: Are you glad to have a new set of colleagues? By the end of
sequencing the human genome, there were some hard feelings all around.
VENTER: And there still seem to be. Well, nobody likes to lose, or appear to
lose, and I guess some of our colleagues in the genome race feel they
clearly lost, so they're a little bitter over it. You know, human genetics
is probably the single most cutthroat field I've seen in biology. The
vindictive nature of some of these scientists is truly stunning. I'm hoping
people in energy have the higher good of what they're trying to accomplish
WIRED: One prominent microbial biologist described you as a relative
beginner when it comes to these bugs. What do you think?
VENTER: Absolutely guilty, and I'm proud of it. Usually it's somebody coming
in from the outside who makes the breakthroughs.
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