BBC TwoNewsnight
Last Updated: Tuesday, 23 October 2007, 13:10 GMT 14:10 UK
Scientist plotting genetic revolution
Susan Watts, Science Correspondent
By Susan Watts
BBC Newsnight, science editor

He is perhaps the world's most controversial scientist. Dr Craig Venter is the only person to have published his entire genetic code - and famous for the ferocious race to get there first.

Craig Venter
Dr Venter could be on the cusp of creating life

He used faster, some say "dirtier" science, and private money, to win that race - against a lumbering scientific establishment.

This is the third time I've met, and interviewed, Craig Venter. If I'd been asked to sum him up in one word after our earlier meetings it would have been "icy".

This time round he seems a little more human. We meet in the relaxed Sunday afternoon tranquillity of London's St Katherine's Docks. He's grown back his beard.

We sit down for the interview in a 1930s BBC-budget yacht. It's not quite what Venter's used to, though he warms to the idea that it's antique, and has a history.

"There's no such thing as a bad boat", he says. Not only is Venter one of the world's most well-known, and most controversial, of scientists - but he's a keen sailor too (He talks in the book about how he once raced Robin Knox-Johnston - and won).

As we're about to start the interview, Craig draws out a yellow inhaler...

"So do you really have asthma?" I ask, having read in his book that it was of the genetic susceptibilities indicated in his complete genome sequence. "Oh yes, since I was 30".

Craig Venter
Craig Venter combines his love of sailing with genetic research

As one of only two individuals in the world to have their entire genetic code to hand, Venter knows more than the rest of us about what his genes tell him about the state of his health.

The second individual in this unique position is James Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA and, sadly, now better known in the UK for his views on race and IQ than anything else.

I'd spoken to both men back in 2003 - for a special Newsnight programme to mark the 50th anniversary of Watson and Crick's discovery of the structure of DNA.

Greatest regret

Watson was equally provocative then on the subject of genes and IQ.

"It can't be easy being born with a low IQ. A lot of people take advantage of you…and so anything which could make people at the bottom of the - err - the sort of genetic basket happier I think would be wonderful."

Venter said he was sad to see so celebrated a scientist "self-destruct".

"There is no scientific basis for what Watson was saying. Race is a social concept, it's not a scientific one, there's no evidence in our genetic code that would indicate there to be a clear demarcation that would separate humans into different race categories. It is absolutely clear to me that even the association of skin colour with medicine, the so-called race based medicine, is clearly misguided, and when you go to race based intelligence it just racist talk. It has no scientific basis whatsoever."

As we discussed genetic heritage, I asked Dr Venter about his own son - now 30. He says in the book his biggest regret is not having been able to have played a bigger role in his upbringing.

He tells me that until recently his son was a metal sculptor. Now he's back at college studying molecular biology, maths and computing. Much like his dad then, a late devotee to the sciences.

Mycoplasma bacteria
The so-called race based medicine, is clearly misguided, and when you go to race based intelligence it just racist talk
Dr Craig Venter

Some of the most interesting things he says are in the briefest of asides. He tells me he's in talks with Nasa bosses about gaining access to their samples from comets - to look for genomes there too.

"Oh we'll definitely find bacteria - we've been exchanging life with the rest of the solar system forever…one of the most fascinating facts I learned recently was about how many Earth-like objects there are out there - in our Galaxy alone…"

Another pet project is a plan to sequence the genomes of the 400 or so people who have walked in space. We compare notes.

I'd recently been to Edinburgh for this year's congress of the Association of Space Explorers - celebrating the 50th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik. These people are unique. The physiology of their bodies has been pored over more than anyone else on Earth.

He says he's enjoyed writing the book: "It's been cathartic…"

But he also admits to being more worried about publishing his autobiography, putting his personal life out there in the open - than he was about publishing his genome. Scientists everywhere gained full access to that earlier this year.

Frankenstein moment

His latest research, at his company "Synthetic Genomics" is perhaps the most challenging yet. Look at the website "Imagine a future where specially tailored organisms harness the Sun to create clean energy…"

This is his work to put together the building blocks of life - chunks of microbial DNA - to bring about bio-factories that can make clean hydrogen fuel from sunlight and water, or soak up carbon dioxide to help combat global warming.

"We know we can make synthetic DNA - that's been possible for the last 30 years, its just increasing the size of the pieces. It's what do you do with it. How do you boot up a chromosome? It's not a living entity it's just a piece of chemical.

"And what we published just a short while ago, where we could take a chromosome - just the naked DNA from one species and transplant it into another bacteria…and that chromosome that we put in totally took over the cell - all the characteristics of the original species completely went away, along with its chromosome, and the new chromosome dictated everything that happened in the cell. To us that's the key experiment."

Media interest

But crucially, I asked, has he yet managed to "boot up" that chromosome in the lab - what some might call the Frankenstein moment..?

"No we have not achieved that yet, but experiments are underway, but these experiments take six weeks, because cells grow slowly. It's weeks to months away."

He pulled out a series of little "after dinner speech" cards, which plotted out his schedule for the next few days. He read me the tiny print.

Monday morning - press conference at 10.30 am ("don't know why - I've got nothing new to say") then it's BBC "Hardtalk", then lunch with the FT, then a dinner - "Oh yes, and then there's Newsnight - that's live isn't it?"

"Enjoy tomorrow," I said "It should be fun."

"I'm gonna try and make it that way", he said - and he grinned. I wasn't sure if his idea of "fun" is quite the same as it is for the rest of us…

Creating life in the laboratory
19 Oct 07 |  Science/Nature

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