Craig Venter on the Hail Mary Genome and Synthetic Meat

The man who sequenced the human genome and created synthetic life explains the merits of fake meat and why Monsanto is good for farming
Venter grows algae in a greenhouse in SGI's headquarters in La Jolla, Calif. Photograph by Mark Peckmezian for Bloomberg Businessweek

Where are we in the hype cycle of synthetic biology?
My complaint is that there are more books and news articles than there are primary scientific papers. I am probably the biggest critic of the hypesters, because it’s dangerous when fields get overhyped. I was at a seminar last year. The guy speaking was not somebody who works in the field. It was all hype in how you design life forms and there are machines that build them automatically. And I got up and said—I really offended the guy—“Everything you’ve heard is bulls-‍-‍-.” Maybe some of that stuff will happen one day, but he gave the impression that’s where the field is now. We need more solid science.

Can you explain what the Hail Mary genome is and where we are with it?
It’s funny that that term got out there. We’re trying to design a basic life form—the minimal criteria for life. It’s very hard to do it because roughly 10 percent of the genes are of completely unknown function. All we know is if we take them out of the cell, the cell dies. So we’re dealing with the limitations of biology. If we start with this minimal synthetic cell that we’re designing and building now, you could recapitulate all biology by adding components to that cell. In theory, we could eventually get to humans by adding enough components to that genome.

It’s like Lego blocks?
That’s right. You have to have the fundamental systems to be able to do design. Genome design is going to be a key part of the future. That’s why we need fast, cheap, accurate DNA synthesis so you can make a lot of iterations of something and test them. The simple test is: Do you get life? We found just from one letter being wrong out of 1.1 million, it made the difference between life and no life.

Last year you made it sound like it was about to happen.
It’s what the whole history of this field has been. I have been sure we’re about to solve all the problems, and next year people will say, “Where is it?” We have not done it yet. If we had, I probably wouldn’t tell you. But I wouldn’t lie.

What’s the most promising thing we can do to curb global warming?
There’s not one thing. Obviously, stopping taking carbon out of the ground and burning it into the atmosphere is the long-term thing that has to be done. The least efficient thing we do is feed cows grass, corn, water, to produce steaks. It’s not sustainable. I think technology can replace meat from animals. I have a name for our enterprise. It’s called “motherless meat” because vegans have a rule that if it has a mother, they won’t eat it. If we can take the genes that produce meat proteins, take the fat from algae cells, we think we can make healthy meat. It will taste more like meat, and you eliminate the cows and all the processes that we do. I like good steaks, but I like lots of things that aren’t sustainable.

Your company has taken large investments from ExxonMobil and BP to pursue energy advances with biofuels. Some people would say, “Here is a company that is teamed up with Monsanto and Exxon and BP. It’s not like the Who’s Who of the Green Party’s favored nations.”
Actually, Monsanto is probably the best thing in the world for agriculture. They just have a bad rap.

What are people missing?
People can question the motives of the Exxons and the BPs and why they’re making these investments. To me, the bottom line is they’re making the investments. They’re not trying to block the research. They’re not trying to compete with it. They’ve had pretty realistic expectations. When Obama was coming into office for the first time, they were scared to death about carbon taxes. So any investment like that would have been an offset for them. I have been a supporter of the president. But the environment has fallen to the wayside in politics.

Since then, Chevron, then Shell have sort of pulled out. Our new program with Exxon is a fraction of what it was earlier on. BP has now cut way back on their funding. But they’re still funding things, because if the world changes they need to be part of that.

What is the future of your company?
From what I understand about business, the companies that can stay private are pretty damn happy doing so. I anticipate that we will be doing a major equity event in the near future because I think we’ve gotten a lot of these technologies ready for prime time. So whether we do it through an IPO, I think a private placement is much more likely to raise a couple hundred million and really take off. It’s an exciting time.

Why haven’t you won the Nobel prize?
It would be fantastic if Ham Smith and Clyde Hutchison and I could share the Nobel prize for the first synthetic life forms, and Ham could be a two-time prizewinner. But I don’t worry about it much. I’ve gotten some pretty nice awards. I’m having trouble finding places to put them all.

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