State of the Union January/February 2007

The God of Small Things

Mapping the human genome wasn’t enough. Now Craig Venter is trying to create a microbe that will free us from our addiction to oil.

Back when Craig Venter was the bad boy of science, racing the U.S. government to sequence the human genome—and using some of his own DNA to do it—he kept his face clean-shaven, and often posed for photographs in suits or medical coats. With his high forehead, bald scalp, and laborato­ry pallor, he looked more like central casting’s idea of a respectable scientist than the self-promoting egomaniac that his enemies labeled him, or the surf bum and Vietnam medic that, as journalists never failed to point out, he had been as a younger man.

These days Venter has the air of a richer, less-rumpled Steve Zissou, the Jacques Cousteau–like oceanographer played by Bill Murray in The Life Aquatic. He sports a wraparound white beard and has the persistent tan of someone who’s spent much of the past few years at sea, having circumnavigated the globe on a yacht called the Sorcerer II. His office, tucked away amid the sprawl northwest of Washington, D.C., seems to boast a model ship for every distinguished-scientist citation, and screens on the walls display a rotating series of photos from his voyage—deep-sea creatures alternating with shots of a windblown Venter at the helm. When a writer for Wired caught up with him somewhere in the South Pacific, Venter was wandering a beach naked, fishing items of interest out of the water. (“You’re glad I was clothed today,” he joked when I arrived for an interview last fall.)

Not that Venter has settled into retirement. The voy­age may have helped him relax and blow off steam after several years in the eye of a scientific, political, and media hurricane. But it was primarily a Magellan-meets-Darwin expedition in which Venter and his crew sifted the sea for enough biological material to map the genome of, well, the entire planet Earth, collecting millions of microbes on filter paper and shipping them back to Rockville, Maryland, for analysis. Venter’s labs once broke apart human DNA and put it back together again; now they’re attempting the same thing with microbial genes.

But this time, Venter is out to build new genomes, not just to analyze existing ones. He’s not just trying to understand how life works; he’s trying to make it work for him, and us. The race to map the human genome, in its headier moments, promised cures for Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, cancer. Venter’s current undertaking shows promise for something no less ambitious: a cure for our dependence on oil.

This is how you know that the quest for alternative energy is enjoying a moment in the sun: A Republican president with an oil-company background is talking up alternative fuels and has announced, in his State of the Union address, that America is “addicted to oil.” The energy companies themselves—BP and Chevron, for instance—are investing hundreds of millions of dollars in renewable-energy research. And a host of high-profile investors, from Richard Branson to Bill Gates, are jumping into the alternative-energy market as well.

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We’ve been here before, of course. Since the 1970s, researchers have experimented with hybrid electric cars, cold fusion, wind power, solar power, geothermal energy, and hydrogen, all to little avail. Blame insufficient government investment, blame low gas prices, blame our obsession with SUVs, blame the not-in-my-backyard backlash against wind farms and nuclear-power plants—whatever you blame, all our turbines and Toyota Priuses haven’t kept America’s consumption of oil from skyrocketing.

But maybe this time is different. The scientific consensus on global warming and the role of carbon-dioxide emissions in heating up the Earth is stronger than it’s ever been. Concern is growing that the world might be nearing “peak oil”—the moment at which supply starts to decline (leading, some say, to the collapse of industrial civilization). And after 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq, just about everyone, from the most left-leaning environmentalist to the most hawkish neoconservative, thinks that for national-security reasons alone, the United States should be importing less crude from the Middle East.

Ironically, though, the most-talked-up oil alternative in this alternative-energy moment is a fuel that’s long been called a boondoggle: ethanol, a form of alcohol produced through the fermentation of sugar derived from plant matter, usually corn kernels. The federal government has been boosting ethanol since the 1970s: refiners who add ethanol to their gasoline get a tax break of 51 cents a gallon, and high tariffs help keep out competition from abroad. But thirty years and billions of dollars later, we have little to show for it beyond a raft of prosperous agribusinesses and a small network of gas stations, mostly scattered around the Midwest, that offer ethanol-compounded gasoline.

Like most alternative fuels, ethanol has problems on both the demand and supply sides of the equation. Fuels that consist primarily of ethanol—like E85, which contains only 15 percent gasoline—cost about as much as regular gas, and deliver fewer miles per gallon. If demand were high for such a fuel, there wouldn’t be enough to go around. The industry is currently capable of producing about 4.8 billion gallons of ethanol a year; the United States consumes roughly 140 billion gallons of gasoline annually.

So why the excitement over ethanol? The answer isn’t in corn kernels, but in the stalks, roots, and leaves of corn and other plants—“cellulosic” material that’s historically been difficult to break down into sugars efficiently, but that now might be only a few breakthroughs away from becoming the source that makes ethanol available on the cheap. Cellulosic ethanol could be made from agricultural waste, so that we need not rob our food supply for our energy supply. Better still, it could be derived from non-food- producing plants grown on land otherwise unsuitable for cultivation. Cellulosic ethanol wouldn’t provide a complete solution to our energy problem, but even many skeptics acknowledge its promise, and the Department of Energy is excited enough to have made the pursuit of cellulosic ethanol a key component of its plan to replace a third of annual U.S. oil consumption with biofuels by 2030.

All that’s needed is the right science.

This is where Craig Venter comes in—though arguably, he’s been there all along. Genomic research, after all, doesn’t just offer scientists an opportunity to take apart the genome of a human being, a mouse, or a bacterium to see how it works and what it does. It offers them a chance—if they’re sufficiently ambitious, or hubristic—to change what a genome does, and to make the organism do what we want it to do. And one of the obvious things we might want organisms to do for us—they already do it for their own purposes—is produce energy.

Venter took a roundabout route to scientific prominence. After growing up in a working-class neighborhood in the San Francisco area, he drifted through junior college, spending most of his time on boats and surfboards, and then enlisted in the Navy to avoid being drafted. It was the mid-1960s, and after training as a medic in San Diego—and being court-martialed for refusing a direct order from a superior officer, a woman he happened to be dating at the time—he was sent to Vietnam, where he spent a year in a field hospital in Da Nang at the time of the Tet offensive.

For the first six months, he worked in the emergency room. A thousand soldiers died around him; a rocket tore through his sleeping quarters. He contemplated suicide, and one day, as he later told the journalist James Shreeve, he started swimming out to sea, planning to paddle until exhaustion carried him under. Partway out he thought, “What the fuck am I doing?” and decided to swim back and live instead.

After surviving Vietnam—after choosing to survive it—Venter never drifted again. The brashness remained, and the surfer’s disrespect for authority, but they were channeled into a fierce ambition and a desire to make a difference in the world. He got married, went back to community college, and then enrolled in the University of California, San Diego, where he earned a joint doctorate in physiology and pharmacology, choosing research over medicine. (“A doctor can save maybe a few hundred lives in a lifetime,” he told his brother at the time, with a characteristic mix of ego and idealism; “a researcher can save the whole world.”) All this took six years. It was followed by a junior faculty position at the State University of New York, Buffalo, where he drove a baby-blue Mercedes, favored garish shirts and bell-bottoms, split up with his wife, and married one of his students, Claire Fraser. In 1984 he took a position at the National Institutes of Health. There he would first impress and then clash with James Watson, the famous (and famously contentious) co-discoverer of the molecular structure of DNA, who took over the leadership of NIH’s branch of the nascent Human Genome Project in 1990. After Venter developed a quick-and-dirty method of identifying genes, Watson, with Venter present, told a 1991 Senate meeting that the technique “isn’t science,” because the machines “could be run by monkeys.”

By the following summer, Venter had quit NIH and raised enough venture capital to found the Institute for Genomic Research, or TIGR, where he would have complete control of all research, although any marketable discoveries would belong to the commercial wing of the enterprise, a company called Human Genome Sciences; this was his initial step onto the nonprofit/for-profit tightrope he has walked ever since. In 1995, his team published the decoded genetic script for the bacterium Haemophilus influenzae; it was the first time the complete genome of a living organism had been mapped. Later that year, a team led by Fraser published the genome for the parasite Mycoplasma genitalium, a far simpler organism, with only about 500 genes to H. influenzae’s 1,800. “We immediately began to ask obvious questions,” Venter says. “Is there a minimal operating system for a cell? … Was [M. genitalium] the minimum, or could we eliminate genes from that species and get smaller?”

So began the quest for the “minimal genome,” the bare-bones genetic material necessary for life to sustain itself and reproduce. This required dismantling M. genitalium, which suggested another possibility: If you could take a genome apart bit by bit, why not put one together in the same way, creating “life from scratch,” as Venter puts it, with a genome of your choice? Meanwhile, Venter sequenced a third microbe, Methanococcus jannaschii, an organism found deep in the Pacific Ocean. M.jannaschii is an autotroph, meaning that it generates all its energy from inorganic substances. It survives by converting carbon dioxide and hydrogen to methane, and fixes the carbon from the carbon dioxide into its cellular protein structures—a process of obvious interest in a world with an excess of carbon dioxide. “That organism,” Venter says, was responsible for “stimulating our thinking, or my thinking, on the energy front.”

Presented by

Ross Douthat is an Atlantic associate editor and the author of Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class (2005).

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