April 28, 2011

Renowned Biologist Craig Venter Examines Future of Synthetic Genomics

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In front of a packed Statler Auditorum Thursday, one of the world’s most renowned biologists, Dr. J. Craig Venter, discussed his research in creating life from machines in the field of synthetic genomics.

“There have been over 60 million genes discovered to date, and these genes are the design components of the future,” Venter said.

Venter was part of the research team that sequenced the entire human genome in 2001, and in 2007 he created the first synthetic cell from a computer.

Genomics is the study of the genome, which is the entirety of an organism’s genetic material. The genome is made up of DNA, which is composed of thousands of nucleotide bases.

In genomics, scientists typically sequence DNA and analyze nucleotide strands with a computer database. Through synthetic genomics, however, Venter reverses this process, using computer code to create nucleotide bases, which can then be used to create new synthetic organisms, he said.

During his lecture, Venter made many analogies between genomics and computers, calling DNA the “key software of life” and explaining his work as “reading this code and digitizing biology.”

“Life is a DNA software system and if you change the software, you change the species,” he said.

In his research, Venter used a computer algorithm to design unique DNA sequences, which he spliced with bacterial host DNA, before inserting the “new” sequence into another species’ host cell.

The new DNA attacked the cell’s original DNA with restriction enzymes — essentially the same as wiping out the operating system of the cell and replacing it with a totally new operating software, one that Venter can control.

Venter added that the method for changing and creating completely new species exist, but as of now has not been completely explored and utilized.

“This is an exciting time in science, limited only by our imagination,” he said, explaining that this process can be used to implant synthetic DNA to effectively manipulate new species designed by scientists, and therefore for the benefit of humanity. “In a year or two you can all have the first synthetic vaccine,” he said.

Original Author: Nicholas St. Fleur