Clone Armies And Designer Life

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I’ve been offered a few islands to do my work.

Craig Venter said this in passing, almost under his breath, as he spoke Wednesday night about the future of biology at the Oxonian Society in New York. It was a perfect Venterism. Venter, of course, is the scientist who declared he would lead a project to sequence the human genome faster, better, and much cheaper than the official government effort. He’s the guy who then had the audacity last year to publish the most accurate genome sequence to date–his own. He’s the guy who sailed around the world and trawled six million new genes, which he hopes to use to engineer a microbe that will overthrow the petroleum industry and save us from what he considers the biggest threat to civilization: global warming. He’s the one trying to synthesize a genome from scratch–what some might called creating life. That guy.

These audacious projects create a lot of attention for Venter. In fairness, Venter does not use that attention to give a snake-oil spiel. His talk probably surprised a lot of people in the audience, who may have expected lots of simple-to-understand, over-the-top promises about genome sequencing. In fact, Venter had a habit of slipping into tech talk, waxing rhapsodic about the restriction endonucleases that microbes use to cut up the DNA of invading parasites. But every now and then Venter allowed himself a touch of outrageousness. One questioner asked what was being done to make sure that no one went off and used synthetic biology for evil purposes, and mentioned the sci-fi clunker The Island, in which cloned humans are raised for body parts. Venter mentioned–in passive voice, of course–the offer of islands where he could do his research unpestered. We were all left, of course, with an image of Venter mysteriously at work out in the Carribean–perhaps doing his best impression of Dr. Moreau?

Actually, Venter doesn’t much like science fiction. When people asked about the ethics of cloning, he complained that people bring science fiction plots to the problem, imaginging things like armies of killer clones, destroying everything that came across their zombie-like march. He pointed out that the clones would be no more similar to one another than twins. In fact, he said, the problem isn’t that scientists are too wild in their ambitions. The problem is that they’re boring.

I assume he considers himself an exception. After all, during his talk, Venter sketched out a plan to copy genes from deep-sea microbes to produce organisms that could slurp up highly concentrated carbon dioxide and spew out hydrogen gas–killing two environmental birds with one stone by simultaneously providing clean energy and drawing down current levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to more bearable levels. The first step towards this goal will be to compose a genome on a computer, synthesize it from scratch, and insert it into a microbe without killing it. I’ve been wondering when Venter will take that step (see my conversation with him last fall on Back then, Venter said some time in 2008. During the Q&A after his talk, I asked how the experiment was going. He said he still hoped to finish it this year. I felt like such a nag.

The other audience members who asked questions, I noticed, were less interested in energy than in people. I guess we all want to understand ourselves, and think that a genome sequence will do the trick. For someone who has put so much effort into sequencing human DNA, Venter went to great lengths to downplay what genomes can tell us at this point. He considers gene therapy a bust at this point, based on a hopelessly simplistic notion of how the genome works. He doesn’t think a whole lot of personal genomes at this point, either. If you go to 23&me or some other personal genome sequencing company, they’ll look at 500,000 genetic markers in your DNA. That’s less than one-thousandth of your entire genome. What’s more, they’ll only zero in on a couple dozen genes in their report. It’s a good introduction to genomics, but not your inner book of life.

And when the subject of race came up, Venter went to great pains to explain why he was against race-based medicine. The color of a person’s skin is crude guide at best to the genome within. Last year, James Watson, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, said some outrageous things about race and intelligence. Venter came down hard against Watson (who later apologized). But apparently the two were still on speaking terms when Watson later discovered that his genes have some African ancestry. Venter described how he talked to Watson on the phone just after the story broke; Watson said he was looking at pictures of his grandparents and just couldn’t see it. Venter told him to get a paternity test.

Venter also had some news about Watson and himself. Watson, it just so happens, had his own genome sequence published last year by another group of scientists who work not far from me here on the Connecticut shoreline. At the talk, Venter described a paper coming out soon that details a comparison of the two men’s genomes. “My biggest fear was that we’d be too similar,” Venter joked.

But not to worry. Humans, Venter and other researchers are finding, are more genetically variable than the earlier estimates. Our DNA does not just vary letter by letter, but by entire genes–some of us are missing some genes entirely, and others have extra copies. Venter discovered that he has two copies of a gene variant that speeds up the metabolism of some toxins. Watson’s variants don’t. It turns out that Watson’s variants are very rare in people of European descent, but very common in China. He’s becoming a veritable melting pot.

[A producer from Fora TV told me they’ll be posting a video of the talk in a few days–I’ll embed it when it’s ready.]

Image PLOS Biology/Creative Commons License