J. Craig Venter Returns to UCSD: “I think my mind works differently than most”

By John Freeman

If J. Craig Venter has a single mantra, among so many that define his knack for discovery, it would be that human beings are essentially “DNA-driven software machines.”

As such, we are each merely a collective mass of genomic data which, when unraveled, holds the promise of answering the age-old question of “What is life?”

“The reality is the reality,” said Venter, the scientist/author/visionary who made a rare public appearance at his alma mater Monday evening, Oct. 28. “Every life form on this planet is DNA-driven software…Some of us make wonderful music, some make wonderful science. Some write books. There are many endeavors that help define humanity. I don’t feel diminished at all knowing that I’m made of DNA-driven software.”

Such assertions formed the backdrop for Venter’s on-campus appearance at Price Center East, before an admiring, curious gathering that filled the 300-seat hall to capacity. Presented by UC San Diego Extension, the event was part of the Helen Edison Lecture Series.

Moderator Roger Bingham, director/co-founder of The Science Network and a UC San Diego neuroscientist, gently tapped into Venter’s surpassing intellect in the hour-long session that was more relaxed conversation than probing interview. Turning to Venter at the start, he said: “We don’t know where it’s going to go, but then, that’s been your life, hasn’t it?”

Venter was by turns humorous, boastful, wry and thoughtful. With a new book out, his second, titled “Life at the Speed of Light:  From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life,” he’s been making the national media rounds in recent weeks, so it was only natural that he should return to UCSD.

Cover.Life at the Speed of Light

“I think my mind works differently than most, which is perhaps why I didn’t do well in school,” said Venter, describing himself as “a late bloomer” who almost flunked out of high school. “I have a relatively small hippocampus (the brain’s memory bank). I can’t remember a thing that’s put in front of me. But that’s OK because I don’t need to have all this material memorized.”

Venter, 67, described how his life was unalterably changed after he was drafted and sent to Vietnam, where he practiced “jungle medicine” as a medic. Upon his return, he vowed to pursue a life of science.

“It was actually going to UCSD that changed my direction – playing with beating heart cells,” he said. “I learned you could ask basic questions about life and get answers.”

Back in the 1970s, he earned his undergraduate degree in biochemistry and Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology at UCSD. By then, he was well on his way to becoming the university’s most recognized – perhaps most honored — graduate.

The new-age Venter Institute, a $35 million research facility adjacent to campus, officially opens Nov. 8, testament to his series of discoveries – led by de-coding the human genome and creating the first synthetic genome — that have turned him into an international “rock star,” as Bingham called him.

To illustrate the real-life impact of digital synthesis, Venter recalled how in 2009, he got a crisis call from the mayor of Mexico City. He was asked if he could digitally de-code H1N2, an influenza virus that threatened to become a world pandemic. Because of obvious health risks, the actual virus couldn’t be sent out of the country. Instead, Venter and his team successfully digitally synthesized it in their lab.

Venter and his team are developing a process called a “teleportation,” which allows researchers to convert digital code into synthetic forms of DNA. He used this analogy: “You can send a blueprint of a 747. You don’t need to send the (actual) 747.”

As for finding a cure for the aging process, Venter was resolute: “We’re working on it. As long as I’m alive, I’ll be working on it.”

The event will be available on the ucsd.tv website, starting Nov. 15. In addition, it is scheduled for later broadcast in December on UCSD-TV.

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