Voices Of Innovation: Craig Venter

A pioneer in decoding the genomes of everything from microbes to humans, and president of The Center for the Advancement of Genomics.

What value does genomics have?

In health care, the value is going to come from preventive medicine. It can save governments and insurance companies huge amounts of money by preventing disease from happening rather than treating it when it occurs.

Where, outside of medicine, may genomics also play a big role?

I see much more potential economic impact from the nonmedical uses, such as the work we're doing with synthetic cells. It may be possible, for instance, to take the genetic pathway from the yew tree [the original source of cancer drug Taxol] and put it in the cell and have the cell do the complex chemistry. Such a cell could do complex manufacturing that chemists can't do -- and open up a whole new repertoire of drugs.

If we get more theoretical, we could use [synthetic microbes] to take CO2 [from the atmosphere] for the synthesis of pharmaceuticals, textiles, and other products. We could have synthetic cells that take energy from sunlight and convert it to clean fuels such as hydrogen. That will have an impact on everything from politics to the world economy.

Are these innovations likely to happen?

How likely they are depends on how much investment we as a society are going to make. Right now there is very little, except on the health side. But if we don't do something fairly substantial soon about the CO2 we are adding to the atmosphere, then maybe curing cancer won't be of any value.

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