Talking to Craig Venter

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Last week I appeared on, talking about life in all its weirdness with science writer John Horgan. The folks at wondered if I’d come back, perhaps bringing along a scientist to talk to. I said, Of course. The scientist I’ve invited along is Craig Venter.

In the 1990s Venter pioneered methods for sequencing the human genome, racing government scientists to finish the first complete draft. Last month he and his colleagues published a highly accurate read of his own genome, including both sets of chromosomes he got from his parents. He and his colleagues have also trawled the oceans for millions of genes, creating an enormous database for marine biologists to study to understand how microbes control the planet’s chemistry. They’ve sequenced the genomes of organisms ranging from parasitic bacteria to monkeys.

But what Venter is getting the most attention for these days is his quest to make artificial life. I’ve spoken to Venter a couple times about this project (see, for example, this article I wrote back in 2003 when Venter first announced it). Earlier this year Venter took another step towards this goal by transplanting the genome of one species of bacteria into another. Now they’re working on building a synthetic genome to insert into a bacterial host. Last I checked, they were months away.

So it was with some puzzlement that I heard rumors on Friday that Venter was already done and just about to make an announcement. It turned out that the Guardian was publishing an article Saturday that breathlessly opened as follows:

Craig Venter, the controversial DNA researcher involved in the race to decipher the human genetic code, has built a synthetic chromosome out of laboratory chemicals and is poised to announce the creation of the first new artificial life form on Earth.

The announcement, which is expected within weeks and could come as early as Monday at the annual meeting of his scientific institute in San Diego, California, will herald a giant leap forward in the development of designer genomes. It is certain to provoke heated debate about the ethics of creating new species and could unlock the door to new energy sources and techniques to combat global warming.

Mr Venter told the Guardian he thought this landmark would be “a very important philosophical step in the history of our species. We are going from reading our genetic code to the ability to write it. That gives us the hypothetical ability to do things never contemplated before”.

This article ricocheted all over the world, picked up excitedly by other media outlets and bloggers. But if you look closely at the story, it’s not quite what it seems. It doesn’t actually say who told the reporter that the chromosome was finished or that it might be revealed today. Venter himself is quoted to the effect not that the experiment will be an important step, but that it would be. Venter has been saying this sort of stuff ever since the genome transplant was published. It’s no secret that Venter and his colleagues are working on this–but what evidence is there that he’s done and about to announce? Was it a coincidence that the Guardian published this questionable story a couple days before they published an excerpt from Craig Venter’s new memoir?

To see if my hunch was right, I checked in with Heather Kowalski, spokesperson for the J. Craig Venter Institute. This morning she sent me an email confirming what I had suspected…

Dr. Venter and the synthetic genomics team at the Venter Institute have not yet created synthetic life. While progress is being made toward this goal, it has not yet been achieved. When they do so, they will submit the work to a scientific journal for peer review with the hope that it will be published. Any announcements or publications on the synthetic organism are likely still months away.

Creating life from scratch will be big news, no doubt. But it’s distressing that the Guardian managed to get so much press for a carefully worded non-story. I could find only one outlet, Agence France Press, that bothered to fact-check the Guardian story themselves. And even while they quoted Kowalski, they also wrote that “Venter told Britain’s The Guardian newspaper Saturday that he has built a synthetic chromosome using chemicals made in a laboratory, and is set to announce the discovery within weeks, possibly as early as Monday.” It’s as if we journalists were playing a child’s game of telephone, rather than actually reporting stories. Not a proud day for the profession.

Next week I’ll be sure to ask Venter where things really stand with the project. (If all goes according to plan, we’ll be talking on Monday, and the conversation should be posted by Tuesday.) I’ve got plenty of other questions to ask as well–about his many other projects, the ethical questions they raise, and their potential to change our lives. I’m also curious to know what questions you’d like to ask. Leave them in the comment thread, and I’ll pick some to include in my conversation with Venter.

Photo: Evan Hurd