The Loom

Venter’s virus

In February I wrote an article in Science about what Craig Venter’s up to these days. In the late 1990s Venter made his mark by challenging the government human genome project to a race, promising to beat them to the full sequence for a fraction of their budget. Ultimately the race was a tie, and before too long Venter had been shown the door from his company. (I highly recommend James Shreeve’s upcoming The Genome War for all the grisly details.) But he had also been working with the genomes of other organisms–particularly microbes–for years, and he went back to his first love. Not surprisingly, he was soon making headlines again, by setting out to build a microbial genome from scratch. His goal is to be able to tailor-make microbes for various applications, like providing clean energy or consuming carbon dioxide or other unwanted substances.

There was a lot of talk about playing God when Venter made his announcement, but when I spoke to other experts in the field, the general opinion was, “We’ll believe it when we see it.” Not that Venter wasn’t a brilliant scientist who knew how to organize large-scale research with creativity and flair. In fact, many microbiologists were looking forward to seeing if he could just assemble a “minimal genome”–in other words, the lowest number of genes necessary to keep a microbe alive. But most believed that getting to his ultimate goal–designer microbes–was a lot harder than Venter was letting on. For one thing, when hundreds of genes start working together, the complexity gets pretty hairy. For another, microbes already do the sorts of things Venter’s interested in–absorbing carbon dioxide, for example, or producing hydrogen. And it could well be that they’ve already evolved to their optimum. Engineering them drastically beyond what they do now might be like putting the muscles of an elephant in the body of a mouse.

This afternoon, Venter and the Department of Energy announced the first step on his long road ahead. They set out not to build a microbe, but a virus. This experiment is reminiscent of Venter’s human genome work in many ways. Other scientists had built a virus from scratch before, but–like the government human genome project–they had done it very slowly. Venter’s team found a faster way to build up accurate fragments of the genome and then to weld those fragments together in the right order to create a fully functioning virus. The virus in question infects bacteria, and Venter’s reconstructed viruses did just as well as the originals. And instead of taking years, Venter needed two weeks. Faster, Venter, synthesize, synthesize!

Now that their test drive has turned out so well (the details are in press at The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences), it’s on to microbes. Still, the same skeptical arguments about making designer bugs stand–although perhaps in a few years Venter will be knocking them down.

I’m writing this a few hours after the press conference, and I haven’t seen too much comment on this announcement yet on the web. Presumably more will flood in tomorrow morning. But I’m struck by two things in the AP report on the press conference.

1. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham was not reported to have said a peep about whether publishing a how-to guide for building a virus from scratch in two weeks is dangerous or not. Of course, Venter’s speed was due in large part to the massive computers and army of robot DNA sequencers at his disposal. This is not something a terrorist could whip up in his basement. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that something bad can’t come of this work. That, in turn, doesn’t mean this research should be banned or kept secret, but at the very least, safeguards need to be put in place.

2. Here’s something odd that Abraham did say (I’m quoting from the AP story here):

Abraham called the accomplishment “an extraordinary and exciting development” that will speed up “our ability to develop biology-based solutions for some of our most pressing energy and environmental challenges.” As a result of the scientists’ progress, Abraham said it is now “easier to imagine in the not-too-distance [sic!] future a colony of specially designed microbes living within emission-control system of a coal-fired plant, consuming its pollution and its carbon dioxide, or employing microbes to radically reduce water pollution or to reduce the toxic effects of radioactive water.”

This is something Venter’s been saying for months now. But I find it interesting that a member of the Bush cabinet now considers carbon dioxide such a pressing environmental challenge that it requires this sort of remedy. Isn’t this the Administration that has consistently downplayed the danger of global warming?

UPDATE: Friday, 11/14, 11:30 am. Here’s the full text of Abraham’s speech. Nary a word about risks in it. Is Homeland Security taking care of that?