Working Miracles with Nature's Data

Genomics pioneer J. Craig Venter sees the day when his research helps produce remedies for everything from cancer to pollution

As head of the Institute for Genomic Research and a company named Celera Genomics (CRA ), J. Craig Venter led the way to decoding the genomes of humankind and a host of other organisms. Now he's president of the Center for the Advancement of Genomics (TCAG) and the Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives (IBEA), trying to put information about genes to practical uses. He recently discussed his view of the future with BusinessWeek Senior Correspondent John Carey. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation:

Q: What's the value of genomics?


The starting assumption is that there's tremendous economic value in genes. The value down the road will be in new inventions using genes, not just in the medical arena. In health care, the value is going to come from preventive medicine. The potential there is huge. It can save governments and insurance companies huge amounts of money by preventing disease from happening rather than treating it when it occurs. But it's going to be a tough sell [because it's such a radical change from the current system].

Q: What will it take for such a change to occur?


There are two steps. One is having clear-cut medical and genetic knowledge. The other is having economists realize how much might be saved by more people taking [cholesterol-lowering] statins or other preventive measures. We have a team at the institute trying to find changes in the genetic code that are predictive of getting cancer, or that will help predict the outcome of cancer [when it occurs].

Predicting who will develop metastases and who won't allows very focused therapies, applying aggressive treatments only to those who need them and not to others who would be harmed by them. But [overall], the science is moving a lot slower than a lot of people predicted because of the complexity.

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


I see much more potential economic impact from the nonmedical uses, such as some of the work we're doing with synthetic cells. It may be possible, for instance, to take the genetic pathway from the yew tree [which makes the complicated drug, taxol, used to treat cancer] and put it in a 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 to the pharmaceutical industry.

On the industrial side, DuPont (DD ) has engineered E. coli [a common bacterium] to produce propanediol from glucose, which is used to build a lot of chemicals.

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. That would not only take less oil out of the ground, but we also would be reversing some of the damage we are doing [adding CO2 to the atmosphere through the use of fossil fuels].

And if we want to get really speculative, we could have synthetic cells, which take energy from sunlight and convert it to clean fuels such as hydrogen. That will have a big impact on everything from politics to the world economy. We have a grant from the Dept. of Energy to try to modify some photosynthetic cells genetically, so that they switch from producing glucose to making hydrogen.

Q: Are these innovations likely to happen?


I think all these things are truly possible -- and they would have a massive impact. How likely they are depends on how much investment we as a society are going to make. Right now there's very little investment in them, except on the health side. The energy side doesn't get as much funding as even some [rare] diseases. But if we don't do something fairly substantial soon about the billions of tons of CO2 we're adding to the atmosphere, then maybe curing cancer won't be of any value.