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Boat Focus: Sorcerer II

Sorcerer II at Glacier Bay in Alaska

E xplorations of the globe under sail, like Darwin’s voyage aboard the ship Beagle and the voyage of the Royal Navy ship Challenger in the 1870s, were scientific milestones that greatly increased our knowledge of the planet. For biological scientist and lifelong sailor Dr. J. Craig Venter those passages provided a major inspiration for his extensive voyaging aboard his 95-foot sloop Sorcerer II . On two separate expeditions Venter, along with a group of fellow scientists and Sorcerer II ’s crew, gathered biological samples from the world’s oceans. Sorcerer II sailed more than 65,000 miles and harvested a vast biological trove that is being used to expand knowledge of the world’s biological organisms.  

A comfortable research space in the main salon.

In the 1990s, Venter and his team successfully sequenced the human genome in parallel with a government-funded effort. Venter also founded the biotech firms Celera Genomics, the Institute for Genomic Research  and the J. Craig Venter Institute.  

Dr. J. Craig Venter at the wheel.

During a recent phone call Venter said that when he was serving in the Navy during the Vietnam War and stationed at a Navy facility in Da Nang, he often thought about sailing. “The idea of the sailing around the world helped keep me sane,” Venter said. When deciding to launch his first worldwide sampling expedition he realized he could combine his desire to do a circumnavigation with science. “A chance to do that and do my research at the same time was a phenomenal opportunity.” Venter and David Ewing Duncan have written a new book about the sampling expeditions called The Voyage of Sorcerer II published in September by Harvard University Press.  

Venter and crew collected samples every 200 miles by pumping 200 to 400 liters of seawater aboard and running it through a series of increasingly smaller filters designed to capture ever smaller denizens of the aquatic world. The filters with their specimens were then frozen on board and when Sorcerer II arrived at a port that had air freight service the frozen filters were airlifted back to Venter’s lab for analysis. The amount of data acquired was staggering. “We discovered more species on these voyages,” Venter said, “than the entire history of scientific discovery put together.”

craig venter sailboat

During Venter’s research voyages, the boat — currently under different ownership, Venter sold it in 2019 — was equipped with a 300 horsepower 6CTA8 3M Cummins diesel with an adjustable pitch Max Prop propeller and fuel tankage of 2,324 gallons and water tankage of 634 gallons. Its fin keel has a draft of 10.2 feet. Even though a large boat Sorcerer II has manual cable steering. It was also equipped with bow and stern thrusters, water maker, two gensets and a host of other gear for crew comfort while conducting its research worldwide.

The tough hull of e-glass and Kevlar was well suited to the demands of many ocean miles. An excerpt from the Venter and Duncan’s book provides a glimpse of how Sorcerer II ’s captain viewed the vessel. “Sorcerer is not too big and not too small,” said Captain Charlie Howard, describing his vessel…. “She is smart and well put together with the best components and a lot of thought and engineering. She has long legs and once took us almost six thousand miles on one load of fuel from Cape Town to Antigua. She thrives on lots of attention and when you don’t give her the attention, she gives you surprises. She is a good friend when the going is rough, and she has never let me down.” n

The Voyage of Sorcerer II Logo

An epic travelogue, brimming with the excitement of discovery. With characteristic panache, Venter unveils the teeming array of bacteria, viruses, and eukaryotes that crowd our planet’s oceans. His research will undoubtedly shape our understanding of the global ecosystem for decades to come.
An exhilarating account of how creative science is accomplished. Few would guess just how many microbes live with us and how much they contribute to human health, both directly in our bodies and by making sure the air we breathe supports life. I have always loved bacteria, but after reading this I have an enhanced appreciation of their value to life on this planet. I highly recommend it.
The Voyage of Sorcerer II combines panoramic linguistic imagery with trenchant scientific insights to provide the reader a virtual seat aboard the most important ship of discovery since Darwin’s Beagle. Venter reveals to us why Earth should be called ‘Water’ and why the ocean’s microscopic life is our deepest and most magical reservoir of genetic diversity. This page-turner gives each of us the thrill of seeing our planet’s largest universe through the brilliant, intrepid eyes of the scientist who has done more than anyone to unlock the secrets of life.
A tour de force. Following in the paths of the Beagle and the Challenger, Venter has expanded biology’s horizons. This book explores microbial life on a global scale, providing cutting-edge solutions to problems of environmental change.
A fascinating inside look at Venter’s historic expeditions that makes the experiences, the analysis, and the transformative discoveries come alive.
We humans may think we are the most important species on Earth, but we’re actually just bit players in a far broader and more complex microbial world. In this exciting journey into that deeper world, Venter and Duncan expand our scope of what it means to be alive.
A ripping tale of how a sailing adventure and science can be combined to revolutionize our understanding of our bodies, the oceans, and the planet.
Microlands combines panoramic linguistic imagery with trenchant scientific insights to provide the reader a virtual seat aboard the most important ship of discovery since Darwin’s Beagle. Venter reveals to us why Earth should be called ‘Water’ and why the ocean’s microscopic life is our deepest and most magical reservoir of genetic diversity. This page-turner gives each of us the thrill of seeing our planet’s largest universe through the brilliant, intrepid eyes of the scientist who has done more than anyone to unlock the secrets of life.

After sequencing the human genome and embarking on a reimagining of his Institute and future research, J. Craig Venter, Ph.D. set upon a project combining his two loves: sailing and science. In 2004, after a successful pilot project where the DNA was collected and sequenced at the Bermuda Atlantic Time Series site, Dr. Venter and a team from his Institute launched the Sorcerer II Global Ocean Sampling (GOS) Expedition.

Inspired by 19th century sea voyages like Charles Darwin’s on the H.M.S. Beagle and Captain George Nares on the H.M.S. Challenger, the Sorcerer II circumnavigated the globe for more than two years, covering a staggering 32,000 nautical miles, visiting 23 different countries and island groups on four continents. The expedition continued for fifteen years, collecting tens of millions of marine microbes found in the global oceans and in the process has changed our understanding of this critical resource that sustains us.

In “The Voyage of Sorcerer II,” Dr. Venter and science writer David Ewing Duncan tell the remarkable story of these expeditions and of the momentous discoveries that ensued: of plant-like bacteria that get their energy from the sun, proteins that metabolize vast amounts of hydrogen, and microbes whose genes shield them from ultraviolet light. The result was a massive library of millions of unknown genes, thousands of unseen protein families, and new lineages of bacteria that revealed the unimaginable complexity of life on earth. Yet despite this exquisite diversity, Venter encountered sobering reminders of how human activity is disturbing the delicate microbial ecosystem that nurtures life on earth. In the face of unprecedented climate change, Venter and Duncan show how we can harness microbial genomes to develop alternative sources of energy, food, and medicine that might ultimately avert our destruction.

A captivating story of exploration and discovery, “The Voyage of Sorcerer II” restores microbes to their rightful place as crucial partners in our evolutionary past and guides to our future.

In “Microlands,” Dr. Venter and science writer David Ewing Duncan tell the remarkable story of these expeditions and of the momentous discoveries that ensued: of plant-like bacteria that get their energy from the sun, proteins that metabolize vast amounts of hydrogen, and microbes whose genes shield them from ultraviolet light. The result was a massive library of millions of unknown genes, thousands of unseen protein families, and new lineages of bacteria that revealed the unimaginable complexity of life on earth. Yet despite this exquisite diversity, Venter encountered sobering reminders of how human activity is disturbing the delicate microbial ecosystem that nurtures life on earth. In the face of unprecedented climate change, Venter and Duncan show how we can harness microbial genomes to develop alternative sources of energy, food, and medicine that might ultimately avert our destruction.

A captivating story of exploration and discovery, “Microlands” restores microbes to their rightful place as crucial partners in our evolutionary past and guides to our future.

craig venter sailboat

The Voyage of Sorcerer II traces an expedition to unlock the genetic mysteries of the ocean

This article was published more than 6 months ago. Some information may no longer be current.

craig venter sailboat

Scientist and author J. Craig Venter signs copies of his new book Sorcerer II: The Expedition That Unlocked the Secrets of the Ocean’s Microbiome at the Arts and Letters club in Toronto, on Oct. 26, 2023. Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

The expedition to crack open the ocean’s genetic treasure chest began in Halifax harbour under an overcast sky.

It was Aug. 20, 2003. J. Craig Venter, the geneticist turned entrepreneur, had arrived with the captain and crew of Sorcerer II, his 95-foot sailing yacht that doubled as a floating field laboratory. His mission: circumnavigate the globe while sampling the ocean waters along the way. It was to be a planet-wide DNA test that would shed light on the full breadth of the ocean’s genetic diversity in a way that had never been attempted before.

Venter was not a novice – to sailing or to mounting large and transformational science projects aimed at overturning the conventional wisdom of his peers.

“Everyone thinks that new discoveries are about making breakthroughs,” Venter told an audience during a recent visit to Toronto, where he sits on the science and innovation advisory committee for the Hospital for Sick Children. But often, discoveries simply overcome bad ideas of the past, he added.

Now 77, Venter was 56 and newly unemployed when he decided to travel around the world by sailboat. By then he was already a world renowned scientist and a notorious iconoclast. His innovative approach to genetic sequencing in the 1990s had allowed him to race the massive Human Genome Project mounted by the U.S. National Institutes of Health. The effort reached its culmination in the summer of 2000 with the unveiling of a first draft of the full human genetic code three years ahead of schedule by the NIH and Celera Genomics, the company Venter co-founded in 1998.

The joint reveal, brokered by the White House, kept the focus on the future benefits of the achievement for humanity, but Venter has never been shy about saying he won the race. Eighteen months later he was fired from Celera because the leadership of the firm’s parent company “decided they didn’t need this radical scientist any more,” he said in an interview with The Globe and Mail.

What followed is documented in The Voyage of Sorcerer II, a book by Venter and his co-author, science writer David Ewing Duncan, that provides a personal account of a unique expedition.

For Venter it was to be the ultimate midlife reset – not to mention a chance to irk colleagues in academia and government who were locked into a more conventional approach.

craig venter sailboat

It was “my best idea,” he said. “I found a way to sail around the world on my own boat and do science and get paid for it.”

It was also Venter’s golden opportunity to finally pursue science in a way that most excited him, as it was once done by Charles Darwin and other 19th-century pioneers: by looking and seeing what’s out there without any idea what might turn up.

Even the choice of Halifax as the expedition’s official starting was a kind of homage to this idea. Halifax had also been visited by HMS Challenger in 1873, the first expedition to survey life in the global ocean’s depths.

That historic voyage famously showed that the seafloor was not a biological desert sterilized by extreme conditions, as some thought at the time. No matter how deep, the ocean was occupied.

Venter frames his own voyage in similar terms, as showing that microbial life in the ocean is far more diverse at the genetic level than expected.

His first run at the idea came with a sailing trip in the spring of 2003 to sample waters in the Sargasso Sea, a portion of the Atlantic Ocean east of Florida where drifting micro-organisms are partly confined by currents.

A small team including expedition scientist Jeff Hoffman filtered some 400 litres of seawater to capture bacteria and then froze the contents for detailed analysis on land.

The results were obtained using the same “shotgun sequencing” technique that Venter had applied so successfully to the human genome. It starts with pulverizing DNA into short random strands that can be read by sequencing machines and then using a computer algorithm to match overlapping readouts from the fragments to reconstruct a complete genetic sequence.

But now, instead assembling the code of a single organism, the algorithm might be working with DNA from many separate bacterial species, invisible and indistinguishable from one another except through their genetic fingerprints.

The result “blew our minds,” said Venter. The Sargasso Sea was teeming with diversity. As detailed in a research paper based on the analysis, the team found 1.2 million newly reported genes from at least 1,800 species including bacterial groups previously unknown to science.

It was an impressive haul but Venter was already working on a far more ambitious sailing trip to gather samples from around the world and show not only the vast richness of microscopic life in the seas but its variation from one location to the next. The uniform blue expanse that represents the ocean on a world map might, in reality, be subdivided into countless microbial domains, evidence of the dynamic multibillion-year evolutionary history of life on Earth.

By summer the expedition was coming together, drawing skepticism from some but also winning early support from some powerful allies, including Ari Patrinos, who was then director of biological research at the U.S. Department of Energy and key funder. Another supporter was the late E.O. Wilson, the celebrated Harvard University biologist.

“He liked that I was asking global questions and treating it as a much big picture,” Venter said.

The expedition’s first sample was collected in Halifax Harbour followed by a road trip by Venter, Hoffman and others across the width of Nova Scotia to scoop water out of the Bay of Fundy with the help of a local fisherman. The drive included a visit with Victor McKusick, the Johns Hopkins University professor known as the father of medical genetics, who had a summer home in the area.

The Sorcerer II soon headed back down the Atlantic coast, first to Hyannis, Mass., and then Annapolis, Md., for a final series of preparations that would allow the ship, under the guidance of Canadian-born Captain Charlie Howard, to travel the open ocean for months-long stretches without support.

In December the sailing and the sampling continued, with the ship making its way to Florida and on to the Caribbean and the Panama Canal. Venter’s initial plan had been to sail around South America but the time of year combined with the treacherous currents around Cape Horn ruled out a long journey around the continent. And there was the likelihood that Brazil would not permit sampling in its territorial waters – a harbinger of the growing debate over who holds sovereignty over genetics information obtained from the environment and any future profits that such information may generate. Although the expedition’s findings were always intended to be made public domain, Venter had already been branded “bio-pirate of the year” by one environmental group ahead of the voyage.

Sorcerer II entered the Pacific via the Panama Canal and onto the Galapagos Islands, following in Darwin’s footsteps but with the added complication of negotiations over permits and transport of samples back to the United States. The joy of exploring the biological wonderland shines through in Venter’s account, as he and his colleagues search for unique environments to sample, including a hydrothermal vent off Roca Redonda, a tiny steep-sided island that is the eroded remnant of an underwater volcano.

From the Galapagos the crew travelled west across the South Pacific, sampling the waters roughly every 200 miles.

“That’s roughly how far you can sail in 24 hours in a decent-size sailboat,” Venter said. “And so we’d stop once a day and take a sample.”

What the scientists on Sorcerer II found was that, at each stop, more than 80 per cent of the genetic sequences was “totally new and unique,” Venter added. The ocean was, as he had guessed, a far more complicated and genetically diverse patchwork of microscopic ecosystems than had once been supposed.

Other adventures were to follow, including an encounter with a SWAT team in Brisbane, which had been called to investigate whether the ship was a floating meth lab – apparently the work of a jilted fiancé whose former partner had become romantically involved with one of the crew. Later, some of the tensest moments of the voyage came during a stop at the Chagos Archipelago in the Indian Ocean where the crew had their passports seized by the British military, who threatened to impound the Sorcerer II until Venter was able to reach the U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom by satellite phone.

The circumnavigation was completed in January, 2006, when the ship reached Palm Beach, Fla., nearly two and half years after departing Halifax. But it was only to be the beginning of a more sustained campaign of ocean sampling that would next take the ship up the Pacific Coast to Alaska and then on a trip through European waters from the Baltic to the Mediterranean. Further excursions to Antarctica and the North Atlantic followed as the sampling work continued until 2018.

The final section of the book details the research results that have issued from the work, including insights into the active role that viruses play as managers of the marine ecosystem with implications for how nutrients cycle through the oceans.

The most significant impact of Sorcerer II’s voyage may be that it signalled the coming of age of metagenomics, the now widely employed technique of sampling the environment rather than organisms directly to understand the biology of the planet. It is an approach that has seen the merge of a revolution in genetics with big data and computational tools.

Despite Venter’s reputation as a pioneer in the use of algorithms to advance genomics, he takes a measured view of the role that AI will play in biology’s next chapter. Algorithms are tools that are only as good as the data they are trained on, he said. Ultimately it’s the mind of the scientist, and the spirit of discovery that gives direction and meaning to the scientific process.

For all its power, he added, AI “can’t answer questions about the unknown.”

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Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News

From Sequencing to Sailing: Three Decades of Adventure with Craig Venter

In a plenary public appearance at the Molecular and Precision Med TRI-CON event in San Diego, a relaxed Venter reflected on his career highlights, controversies and future priorities for genomic medicine

By Fay Lin, PhD

J. Craig Venter, interviewed in the plenary session of Molecular and Precision Med TRI-CON on March 6, 2023, in San Diego. [Cambridge Healthtech Institute]

SAN DIEGO— More than two decades after making history by being an integral part of the Human Genome Project celebration, J. Craig Venter, PhD still holds a few surprises up his sleeve. In a public appearance at the annual Molecular and Precision Med TRI-CON event, he revealed how he nearly pulled out of the White House celebration in June 2000 after objecting to a first draft of British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s prepared remarks.

The TRI-CON event, hosted by Cambridge Healthtech Institute, celebrates its 30th year this year.

J. Craig Venter, Kevin Davies, Molly He , Alex Aravanis, Euan Ashley

“[The genome revolution] has fallen way short. The sequencing technology has improved by so many exponents but people think that the sequencing is sufficient,” said Venter. “I learned through my assumptions made on my own genome that without measuring the comprehensive phenotype, the genome was virtually worthless.”

Venter emphasized that studying human biology in conjunction with the genome is required to make strides in genomic medicine. “If I had to choose between having my genome sequence and a whole body MRI for health,” Venter said, “I would take the whole body MRI. But the future is combining the two.” Venter co-founded Human Longevity, a company offering state-of-the-art personal genome and imaging screens for clients, in 2013.

Venter’s legacy as a genomics legend established its roots over 30 years ago, starting with a paper published in Science in 1991 , in which Venter’s team at the National Institutes of Health  applied random cDNA sequencing to identify more than 300 human genes of plausible biological function, coining the term “expressed sequence tags.”

“My institute director of neurology complained that I was wiping out all these PhD theses randomly by publishing all these sequences. Of course, that wasn’t the goal. The point was that I’d spent 10 years trying to get one gene and I didn’t want to have to do that again.”

Throughout the 1990s, Venter’s notoriety steadily grew with controversy over the commercialization of DNA discoveries. In 1995, Venter’s team at his non-profit, The Institute for Genome Research (TIGR), published the first microbial genome sequences. In May 1998, he stunned the public HGP consortium by announcing a for-profit effort to sequence the human genome, which later became Celera Genomics.

Venter remembered the day at the White House, June 26, 2000 , when President Bill Clinton celebrated the completion of the first draft of the human genome alongside National Human Genome Research Institute director, Francis Collins MD, PhD. The event was the culmination of a diplomatically negotiated truce of sorts.

The White House ceremony “was dictated by when Celera finished the first assembly in its computer. That’s when we actually had the first genome. There was a lot of back and forth politics because the public effort hadn’t finished their assembly yet,” Venter said.

Venter recalled reviewing British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s speech the night before the ceremony and nearly withdrew from the White House event. “[Blair’s speech] was totally lopsided, attacking Celera and companies sequencing genomes. I said, ‘If you want me to show up, you’ll change the speech.’ [After a back and forth] the White House science advisor called me at 1 am and assured me that the speech had changed.”

Venter’s decision to agree to a joint declaration was “a moment of pragmatism” that actually angered his team and wife, whom Venter says did not speak to him for a week.

“The reality was that Celera was so far ahead and people just wanted to announce and publish it. I thought it wouldn’t help science at all if we undercut the NIH and decided that the best thing for science and the public was to have a truce,” stated Venter.

The personal genome

Since the White House announcement in 2000, the field of genomics has continued to boom, most recently culminating with the Telomere-to-Telomere (T2T) Consortium’s sequencing of the entire human genome in 2022. Asked for his thoughts on these advances, Venter was unfazed.

“We ‘finally finished’ [the human genome] so many times that I lost track! It’s never finally finished, as each of us has a completely unique genome sequence.”

Venter emphasized how each individual’s diploid genome presents orders-of-magnitude more variation than the haploid representation, noting how Sam Levy PhD and colleagues from the J. Craig Venter Institute published the first relatively complete diploid genome — Venter’s personal genome—in 2007.

When asked about the value of genome data to the personal owner of the genome, Venter reflected on his own experiences sharing his genomic information with the public.“My sequence has been out there for so long. There were many people publishing papers of new childhood diseases that I should have died from!” said Venter.

Venter stated that genomic information should be personally controlled, where individuals make the decision on whether to make it publicly available the same way that he did. In addition, Venter said his decision to share his genome was in response to the fear of genome sequencing at the time.

“You might recall editorials [stating] how dangerous it was to have your genome sequenced. Donating my genome and making it available was meant to prove that it wasn’t something to fear,” said Venter.

Under the sea

Venter closed the interview by describing the expansion of his work into metagenomics and his new endeavors sailing the world, a vision that Venter said “kept him sane” during his time as a medical corpsman in Vietnam.

“Once we [sequenced the first genome], we got tons of funding to sequence every genome on the planet,” said Venter. “We did what the Challenger expedition did in the 1870s, where we sailed around the world to examine the bottom of the ocean,” Venter continued.

Venter described shotgun sequencing of filtered sea water samples and being “blown away” by [the diversity of organisms]. He published this sequencing work from the Sargasso Sea in Science in 2004. Venter painted the voyage as a mix of scientific discoveries, logistical challenges and near catastrophe.

“Darwin had it easy!” Venter said. “He could collect samples from anywhere. Nowadays, we need a permit from everywhere to take a water sample 200 miles off their coast. We got arrested by the French and British government. The French even threatened to sink our boat! There was a lot of excitement just to sequence these new genomes.”

Venter has documented these nautical adventures in his upcoming book, co-authored with David Ewing Duncan, called The Voyage of Sorcerer II: The Expedition that Unlocked the Secret’s of the Ocean’s Microbiome . It will be released in September 2023.

OncoMethylome Enhances Pharmacogenomic Services in Deal with BioTrove

Mechanism for gene silencing in skin cancer discovered.

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The Voyage of Sorcerer II: The Expedition That Unlocked the Secrets of the Ocean’s Microbiome

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The Voyage of Sorcerer II: The Expedition That Unlocked the Secrets of the Ocean’s Microbiome Hardcover – September 12, 2023

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“Will undoubtedly shape our understanding of the global ecosystem for decades to come.” ―Siddhartha Mukherjee, author of The Emperor of All Maladies A celebrated genome scientist sails around the world, collecting tens of millions of marine microbes and revolutionizing our understanding of the microbiome that sustains us. Upon completing his historic work on the Human Genome Project, J. Craig Venter declared that he would sequence the genetic code of all life on earth. Thus began a fifteen-year quest to collect DNA from the world’s oldest and most abundant form of life: microbes. Boarding the Sorcerer II , a 100-foot sailboat turned research vessel, Venter traveled over 65,000 miles around the globe to sample ocean water and the microscopic life within. In The Voyage of Sorcerer II , Venter and science writer David Ewing Duncan tell the remarkable story of these expeditions and of the momentous discoveries that ensued―of plant-like bacteria that get their energy from the sun, proteins that metabolize vast amounts of hydrogen, and microbes whose genes shield them from ultraviolet light. The result was a massive library of millions of unknown genes, thousands of unseen protein families, and new lineages of bacteria that revealed the unimaginable complexity of life on earth. Yet despite this exquisite diversity, Venter encountered sobering reminders of how human activity is disturbing the delicate microbial ecosystem that nurtures life on earth. In the face of unprecedented climate change, Venter and Duncan show how we can harness the microbial genome to develop alternative sources of energy, food, and medicine that might ultimately avert our destruction. A captivating story of exploration and discovery, The Voyage of Sorcerer II restores microbes to their rightful place as crucial partners in our evolutionary past and guides to our future.

  • Print length 336 pages
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  • Publication date September 12, 2023
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  • 18 September 2023

Geneticist J. Craig Venter: ‘I consider retirement tantamount to death’

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The Voyage of Sorcerer II: The Expedition That Unlocked the Secrets of the Ocean’s Microbiome J. Craig Venter & David Ewing Duncan Belknap Press (2023)

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Nature 621 , 465-466 (2023)

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-023-02907-9

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Competing Interests

The author declares no competing interests.

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Harvard Science Book Talk: J. Craig Venter, in conversation with Dimitar Sasselov, "The Voyage of Sorcerer II : The Expedition That Unlocked the Secrets of the Ocean’s Microbiome"

Date: .

Science Center, Hall D.
October 4, 2023 @6:00PM
Harvard Division of Science, Harvard Library, and Harvard Book Store
Craig Venter (J. Craig Venter Institute)
Dimitar Sasselov (Harvard)
Free admission

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J. Craig Venter is founder, Chairman, and CEO of the J. Craig Venter Institute, a nonprofit research organization. He is cofounder of the biotechnology companies Celera, Synthetic Genomics, and Human Longevity, Inc. A member of the National Academy of Sciences, he has received numerous public honors and scientific awards, including the US National Medal of Science.

Dimitar Sasselov is a Professor of Astronomy at Harvard University and the Founder and Director of the Harvard Origins of Life Initiative, a multidisciplinary center bridging scientists in the physical and in the life sciences, intent to study the transition from chemistry to life and its place in the context of the Universe.

For more information and videos of Harvard Science Book Talks, see  https://science.fas.harvard.edu/book-talks .

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Buy Craig Venter's Ultra-Luxurious Lab Yacht Today!

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Current owner J. Craig Venter, wealthy maverick geneticist

Sail the world's oceans in style — and revolutionize genomics! Three well-appointed cabins sleep up to eight. Galley features Corian countertops and is stocked for gourmet cooking. Enough scientific equipment on board to sample every microbe in the sea. You might hit the doldrums, but you'll never be overbored: An A/V network lets any of five flatscreen monitors display output from radar, DirecTV, DVD, navigational computer, laptop, or microscope. You can't afford not to buy this boat.

Type Sailing sloop Year 1998 Top speed 10.5 knots Plush rating Bentley Engine 300-hp diesel (What were you expecting, a transgenic whale heart?) Hull materials Balsa and PVC foam with laminates of unidirectional E glass and Kevlar, bonded with epoxy resin at 113 to 122 degrees. (Kraken-proof.)

Accomodations • King-size master stateroom; two cabins, each with two twin beds and private heads. • Separate crew quarters, galley, aft dive cockpit, and salon/office.

Hardware • DirecTV and two 200-gig servers of networked music. Bose speaker system. • Hall Research Technologies matrix to control the video array.

Research gear • Tube that sucks ocean water through three filters, each capturing smaller microbes. • Freezer to preserve and store microorganisms. • Nikon Eclipse 6600 fluorescence microscope that can see into a bacterium's soul. (Bonus: Name any newly discovered microbial species after that sauced model you're bound to pick up in Ibiza. Think Bacillus gisellensis .)

Price $5.25 million (some scientific equipment not included)

Start Previous: Atlas: Airport Delays Are Getting Worse, So Pack Your Patience Next: Jargon Watch: GPS Shield, QUID, Prehab

How One Bad CrowdStrike Update Crashed the World’s Computers

J. Craig Venter's Amazing Decade

this image is not available

2000: President Bill Clinton declares a tie in the race to map the human genome, giving credit to both Venter and his publicly funded rival, Francis Collins. Far from being finished, Venter considers it "the starting line" for the future of medicine.

2001: The Institute for Genomic Research, founded by Venter, helps sequence the genome of the anthrax strain mailed in the attacks that killed five people— evidence that eventually leads the FBI to the source.

2004: Sorcerer II, Venter's 95-foot sailboat, leaves Halifax, Nova Scotia, on a two-year circum­navigation of the globe in search of new microbial species for DNA sequencing.

2005: Venter starts the for-profit Synthetic Genomics Inc. (SGI) to work on solving global problems, such as fossil-fuel dependence, environmental degradation and disease epidemics.

2007: He establishes another first by mapping the 6-billion-letter code of his own "diploid" genome (DNA from both chromosome pairs, one from each parent), discovering a genetic predisposition for blue eyes, antisocial behavior and heart disease.

2008: Using a computer code and four bottles of chemicals, Venter's lab creates the largest man-made DNA structure by synthesizing and assembling the 582,970-base-pair genome of a bacterium.

2009: He announces SGI will receive $300 million from Exxon Mobil to engineer algae cells that turn sunlight and carbon dioxide into biofuel.

2010: Venter's team uses a synthetic genome to boot up the world's first man-made bacterial cell. Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0 becomes the first living organism to have its own website encoded in its chromosomes.

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HE LEAVES HIS BODY TO SCIENCE, HIS HEART TO SAILING

Rockville scientist Craig Venter has been much in the news lately for his work at, and after leaving, the National Institutes of Health, where he developed a computerized tool that dramatically speeds the process of deciphering up to 200,000 genes that contain core information needed to produce a human being.

His findings are so in demand by companies seeking to develop the next generation of genetic "therapy" drugs -- those that correct genetic deficiencies or keep them from occurring -- that he has made millions of dollars through the private research company he set up in 1992, The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR) in Rockville.

But while he enjoys science and intellectual challenge, Venter says the real impetus for his years slaving over gloomy computers is fairly simple: "I just wanted a bigger sailboat."

Now he has it. Venter bought Sorcerer, an 85-foot aluminum racing sloop designed by Argentine German Frers and built at the prestigious Palmer-Johnson yard for the owner of Land's End, the clothing catalog company. After spending $4 million, the owner decided he didn't want it after all.

Venter, following a lifelong policy of buying rich folks' castoffs, picked it up cheap in Fort Lauderdale last year and has been sailing hard from the Virgin Islands to Chesapeake Bay since.

Now he wants to push Sorcerer harder. He's the Washington area's only entry in next May's Atlantic Challenge Cup -- a 3,000-mile race for mega-yachts that aims to break the 90-year-old racing record for fastest monohull passage from New York to England. It was set by the 185-foot schooner Atlantic in 1905.

To beat the record of 12 days 4 hours 1 minute 19 seconds, Sorcerer or one of the other 12 to 20 entries must average about 11 knots, which is not slow at sea. Venter is no racer, and hopes to enlist local hotshots to help him, including former Star class world champion Jim Allsop and three-time America's Cup crewman Jim Kavlie. He also is spending liberally on sails -- close to $100,000 for new mainsail, headsails and spinnakers.

"That mainsail," said Venter last weekend, surveying the bright and shapely swath of new, snow-white Spectra rising high above the deck, "cost more than my first boat."

He was referring to the 33-foot Cape Dory he bought 12 years ago, when he was still an underpaid government hand, and he sailed it to Bermuda through a tropical storm. But in fact Venter's first sailboat came long before that and was actually free. That was in Vietnam, where he traded medical services for a 19-foot Lightning and learned to sail in the surf off Da Nang around the time of the Tet offensive.

Venter was a rebel teenager, and said he barely graduated from high school in San Francisco before joining the Navy in the mid-'60s. He was assigned to Da Nang as a corpsman, which gave him access to the medical gear. When an officer came back from R&R with a bawdy, unwanted tattoo, Venter agreed to remove it in trade for the Lightning.

A former California surfer, he learned to sail through wild sea surf without smashing his boat to bits, he said, while all around him soldiers and sailors were dismasting and capsizing.

Venter attended the two-year College of San Mateo on the GI Bill when he returned home and bought a 19-foot Junior Folkboat to sail on breezy San Francisco Bay. He took it with him to San Diego, where he finished undergraduate work at the University of California and went on to get his Ph.D in 1975. He taught at the State University of New York at Buffalo, then joined NIH in 1984 and bought his first offshore boat, the Cape Dory, which he named Sirius after the dog star.

Later he picked up a Passport 40 called Bermuda High and also briefly owned a Tripp 33 race boat. A price he couldn't say no to popped up on Sorcerer while he was negotiating to build a new 65-footer in Norfolk last year. "This boat was basically the same price as the 65-footer," said Venter. "It was no contest."

Sleek blue Sorcerer is indeed an amazing boat. It has every imaginable mechanical gadget, including bowthrusters for close maneuvering under power, electric power winches to raise and trim all sails, banks of computers for navigation, global communication capability, and yards and yards of gleaming varnished teak above deck and gleaming solid cherry cabinetry below.

At 100,000 pounds, including 55,000 pounds of lead in a bulb at the bottom of the keel for ballast, she's heavy. But she moved easily across the placid Chesapeake last weekend in 6 knots of wind with Craig Fuller, former top aide to George Bush when he was vice president, at the helm.

Sorcerer is unusual among mega-yachts in that it has no paid crew for upkeep. Venter said he bought the boat to sail it, not to have someone else sail it. But after the transatlantic race he plans to keep it in Europe for a year and will have a captain aboard while overseas.

He picked the name "Sorcerer" for its magical implications, he said. It had been named "Turmoil." Said Venter, "I've had enough of that in my life."

Sorcerer was a commanding presence around Annapolis this year, the largest sailboat in the local fleet, but it's gone now. Venter and a small crew last week sailed south to Hilton Head, S.C,, where he'll organize shakedown sails over the winter before heading to New York for the start of the Atlantic Challenge on May 17.

At that point, Sorcerer will suddenly shrink. It may be the biggest sailing yacht in the Chesapeake Bay, but it barely made minimum length for the Challenge, which is being organized by the New York Yacht Club as a test of some of the grandest yachts in the world. Minimum size to enter is 85 feet, and Sorcerer had to stretch to make it (the flagpole off the stern was counted as part of the boat).

On the starting line six months hence will be yachts that make Sorcerer look like a dinghy, including Capt. Timothy Loughridge's 140-foot Sparkman & Stephens ketch Sariyah; Thomas A. Perkins's 130-foot classic Herreshoff schooner Mariette; the massive, 185-foot Adix, and 170-foot Xasteria.

It may be deflating enough to send a poor genetic researcher back to his computers, hunting for another breakthrough. One troubling thing about boats -- there always seems to be a bigger one out there beckoning.

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Craig Venter’s Bugs Might Save the World

By Wil S. Hylton

  • May 30, 2012

In the menagerie of Craig Venter’s imagination, tiny bugs will save the world. They will be custom bugs, designer bugs — bugs that only Venter can create. He will mix them up in his private laboratory from bits and pieces of DNA, and then he will release them into the air and the water, into smokestacks and oil spills, hospitals and factories and your house.

Each of the bugs will have a mission. Some will be designed to devour things, like pollution. Others will generate food and fuel. There will be bugs to fight global warming, bugs to clean up toxic waste, bugs to manufacture medicine and diagnose disease, and they will all be driven to complete these tasks by the very fibers of their synthetic DNA.

Right now, Venter is thinking of a bug. He is thinking of a bug that could swim in a pond and soak up sunlight and urinate automotive fuel. He is thinking of a bug that could live in a factory and gobble exhaust and fart fresh air. He may not appear to be thinking about these things. He may not appear to be thinking at all. He may appear to be riding his German motorcycle through the California mountains, cutting the inside corners so close that his kneepads skim the pavement. This is how Venter thinks. He also enjoys thinking on the deck of his 95-foot sailboat, halfway across the Pacific Ocean in a gale, and while snorkeling naked in the Sargasso Sea surrounded by Portuguese men-of-war. When Venter was growing up in San Francisco, he would ride his bicycle to the airport and race passenger jets down the runway. As a Navy corpsman in Vietnam, he spent leisurely afternoons tootling up the coast in a dinghy, under a hail of enemy fire.

What’s strange about Venter is that this works — that the clarity he finds when he is hurtling through the sea and the sky, the dreams he summons, the fantasies he concocts in his most unhinged moments of excess actually have a way of coming true. He dreamed of mapping the human genome, and he did it. He dreamed of creating a synthetic organism, and he made it. In 2003, he scrawled a line across a map of the world, hopped on his boat with a small team and sailed around the planet in search of new forms of life. By the time they returned, two years later, they had discovered more species than anyone in history.

And last fall, Venter was back in motion at the end of another journey. He was crouched atop his touring bike in the final stretch of a weeklong sprint through the American Southwest, with a handful of friends trailing behind as he whipped through the mountain foothills in a blur. In the days to come, he would return to his office to piece together a design for the first of his custom bugs. But as he streaked back toward the lab, he made a final detour, swerving into the parking lot of a bakery to grab a slice of fresh pie. Venter hopped off his motorcycle, lifted his helmet and grinned into the California sun. “We hit 110!” he said. “Now I feel like I can go back to work.”

In This Article: • A Sci-Fi Fantasy Made Possible? • To Seek Out New Life • Yellow Algae Is Just the Beginning • The Art of Creating Life • Starting From Scratch

A Sci-Fi Fantasy Made Possible?

The prospect of artificial life is so outlandish that we rarely even mean the words. Most of the time we mean clever androids or computers that talk. Even the pages of science fiction typically stop short: in the popular dystopian narrative, robots are always taking over, erecting armies, firing death rays and sometimes even learning to love, but underneath their replicant skin, they tend to be made of iron ore. From the Terminator to the Matrix to the awakening of HAL, what preoccupies the modern imagination is the sentient evolution of machines, not artificial life itself.

But inside the laboratories of biotechnology, a more literal possibility is taking hold: What if machines really were alive? To some extent, this is already happening. Brewers and bakers have long relied on the diligence of yeast to make beer and bread, and in medical manufacturing, it has become routine to harness organisms like Penicillium to generate drugs. At DuPont, engineers are using modified E. coli to produce polyester for carpet, and the pharmaceutical giant Sanofi is using yeast injected with strips of synthetic DNA to manufacture medicine. But the possibility of designing a new organism, entirely from synthetic DNA, to produce whatever compounds we want, would mark a radical leap forward in biotechnology and a paradigm shift in manufacturing.

The appeal of biological machinery is manifold. For one thing, because organisms reproduce, they can generate not only their target product but also more factories to do the same. Then too, microbes use novel fuel. Chances are, unless you’ve slipped off the grid, virtually every machine you own, from your iPhone to your toaster oven, depends on burning fossil fuels to work. Even if you have slipped off the grid, manufacturing those devices required massive carbon emissions. This is not necessarily the case for biomachinery. A custom organism could produce the same plastic or metal as an industrial plant while feeding on the compounds in pollution or the energy of the sun.

Then there is the matter of yield. Over the last 60 years, agricultural production has boomed in large part through plant modification, chemical additives and irrigation. But as the world population continues to soar, adding nearly a billion people over the past decade, major aquifers are giving out, and agriculture may not be able to keep pace with the world’s needs. If a strain of algae could secrete high yields of protein, using less land and water than traditional crops, it may represent the best hope to feed a booming planet.

Finally, the rise of biomachinery could usher in an era of spot production. “Biology is the ultimate distributed manufacturing platform,” Drew Endy, an assistant professor at Stanford University, told me recently. Endy is trained as an engineer but has become a leading proponent of synthetic biology. He sketched a picture of what “distributed manufacturing” by microbes might look like: say a perfume company could design a bacterium to produce an appealing aroma; “rather than running this in a large-scale fermenter, they would upload the DNA sequences onto the future equivalent of iTunes,” he said. “People all over the world could then pay a fee to download the information.” Then, Endy explained, customers could simply synthesize the bugs at home and grow them on their skin. “They could transform epidermal ecosystems to have living production of scents and fragrances,” he said. “Living perfume!”

Whether all this could really happen — or should — depends on whom you ask. The challenge of building a synthetic bacterium from raw DNA is as byzantine as it probably sounds. It means taking four bottles of chemicals — the adenine, thymine, cytosine and guanine that make up DNA — and linking them into a daisy chain at least half a million units long, then inserting that molecule into a host cell and hoping it will spring to life as an organism that not only grows and reproduces but also manufactures exactly what its designer intended. (A line about hubris, Icarus and Frankenstein typically follows here.) Since the late 1990s, laboratories around the world have been experimenting with synthetic biology, but many scientists believe that it will take decades to see major change. “We’re still really early,” Endy said. “Or to say it differently, we’re still really bad.”

Venter disagrees. The future, he says, may be sooner than we think. Much of the groundwork is already done. In 2003, Venter’s lab used a new method to piece together a strip of DNA that was identical to a natural virus, then watched it spring to action and attack a cell. In 2008, they built a longer genome, replicating the DNA of a whole bacterium, and in 2010 they announced that they brought a bacterium with synthetic DNA to life. That organism was still mostly a copy of one in nature, but as a flourish, Venter and his team wrote their names into its DNA, along with quotes from James Joyce and J. Robert Oppenheimer and even secret messages. As the bacteria reproduced, the quotes and messages and names remained in the colony’s DNA.

In theory, this leaves just one step between Venter and a custom species. If he can write something more useful than his name into the synthetic DNA of an organism, changing its genetic function in some deliberate way, he will have crossed the threshold to designer life.

Unless he already has.

To Seek Out New Life

In person, Venter is a sturdy 65-year-old with a ring of gray hair, a deep tan, perpetual stubble and crow’s feet that dance around his eyes. When he caught the world’s attention, in 1998, he was leading a private company, Celera Genomics, in a race against the government’s Human Genome Project to complete the first map of human DNA. That race ended in June 2000, when Venter and the director of the government program, Francis S. Collins, shared a lectern at the White House to declare a tie. Neither man particularly wanted to be there, and each believed his own map was superior, but in the interest of science and at the urging of President Bill Clinton, both grudgingly relented.

In the decade since, Collins has gone on to lead the National Institutes of Health, while Venter has mostly drifted away from the capital, where his challenge to the N.I.H. did not particularly kindle friendships. Though his nonprofit organization, the J. Craig Venter Institute, maintains a base in Rockville, Md., Venter spends most of his time in California, where he grew up and is currently building a $35 million laboratory on the campus of his alma mater, the University of California, San Diego. The building is designed to be carbon-neutral, with solar power and rainwater catchment, nestled on 1.75 acres overlooking the Pacific Ocean; less than two miles away, Venter has renovated a $6 million home with sweeping curvilinear architecture, which is perched on a hilltop of breathtaking views.

In contrast to his lavish home and office, Venter’s commercial enterprise makes a rather humdrum sight. Tucked into a suburban office park, a few miles north of his home, the headquarters of Synthetic Genomics Inc. is a leased two-story box plopped beside a highway. Yet in some ways, the building is the more exciting locus of Venter’s work. Though its grounds and mission are less expansive than the institute, S.G.I. is where Venter’s breakthroughs will be refined and marketed whenever they have real-world potential.

One day recently, I visited the S.G.I. building to have a look around. I found Venter in his office on the second floor, watching a video on his iPad of a race car he nearly crashed last fall at 120 miles per hour. We watched that footage for a while, then another video from a motorcycle trip, and Venter said he had recently flown a helicopter for the first time.

For a scientist, Venter spends little time in the lab, but it would be a mistake to confuse this with a lack of focus. All critical decisions at his company and his institute ultimately ascend to Venter, who monitors the work of about 500 scientists every day, imparting various kinds of guidance and direction, even if he has to be patched in by satellite. After a few minutes in his office, we were joined by Gerardo Toledo, the company’s senior director of microbial discovery. Toledo is lean and angular with hazel skin and amused eyes. In his spare time, he competes in Ironman triathlons and chases Venter on dirt bikes through the California hills. He suggested we visit the labs on the first floor, and as we descended a flight of stairs, he explained that part of the company’s mission is to find, usually in nature, the genetic components that might be useful in synthetic life. For Toledo, this meant scouring the planet for intriguing microbes with uncommon genes. “The idea is to try to understand the extent of microbe diversity,” he said.

Earth is a microbial planet. Micro-organisms make up about half the planet’s biomass, and without them, large animals could not survive. Because they are so small, so abundant and so differentiated, they also contain most of the earth’s genetic diversity. One of the most important discoveries to emerge from the human-genome projects, both at the N.I.H. and at Celera, was the revelation that humans have relatively few genes. Before the human-genome map, most scientists assumed that there were about 100,000 genes in our DNA. In fact, there are about 20,000, or fewer than those of a typical grape. That discovery was one reason that Venter began trolling the oceans in search of new forms of microbial life. Over the past nine years, he and his crew at the institute have collected water samples from thousands of locations, sending them to his lab to be screened and genetically mapped. In total, they have discovered hundreds of thousands of new species (the number is imprecise because the term “species” can be muddy) and about 60 million new genes. There were genes to help organisms survive in chemically noxious water, genes that led to the production of hydrogen and genes that trigger the manufacture of antibiotics, to name just a few. How Venter might incorporate those genes into a designer species one day remains to be seen. But as we walked down the hallways of S.G.I., Toledo explained that the company’s quest to discover microbes is not limited to the oceans.

craig venter sailboat

He stopped by a framed photograph of a hand filled with oily dirt. “That picture is in Malaysia,” he said. “Oil palm is one of the highest oil-producing crops, but we’re trying to see how that can be enhanced. First by understanding its genome and how it can be better. And second to understand what is the ecosystem of all the microbes that fit with it and help it, for example, to assimilate nutrients and prevent diseases.”

We continued past a series of glassed-in labs, where scientists hunched over flasks filled with green fluid, and Toledo explained that some of the earliest organisms that S.G.I. plans to modify will be strains of algae. That’s because algae, even in a natural state, offer an enticing combination of features: they photosynthesize, capturing energy from the sun; they can absorb carbon dioxide, removing a greenhouse gas from the environment; and they produce oil to store energy, which could be cultivated into food or fuel. For decades, scientists have been tinkering with algae to make them more productive and efficient, but success has been elusive. Venter is convinced that the problem will never be solved by tinkering alone. “Algae didn’t evolve to produce tens of thousands of gallons of oil per acre,” he said. “So we have to force the evolution.” For now, S.G.I. is studying natural strains, but the goal is not to select any one of them; it’s to combine the best qualities from each. “We’re collecting all this knowledge,” Venter said, “and then we have to put it all together and design something that hasn’t existed before.”

Yellow Algae Is Just the Beginning

If the promise of synthetic biology is expansive, the potential for catastrophe is plain. The greater the reach of biomachinery, the more urgent the need to understand its risks. As every hobby gardener knows, the introduction of an outside species can quickly devastate an ecosystem. From the kudzu vine to the gypsy moth to the Burmese python surge in the Everglades, we often discover the impact of a species only when it’s too late. Looking to the dawn of a biomachine age, many environmental groups worry that synthetic bugs could become the ultimate invasive species. “It’s almost inevitable that there will be some level of escape,” Helen Wallace, the executive director of the watchdog group GeneWatch, told me. “The question is: Will those organisms survive and reproduce? I don’t think anyone knows.”

The reassurance offered by Venter and other proponents may not be convincing to everyone. A synthetic bug, they say, has little chance of surviving in the competitive natural ecosystem, and anyway, it could be designed to die without chemical support. In 2010, President Obama ordered his bioethics commission to examine the implications of Venter’s work, and the commission found “limited risks.” Still, a person can be forgiven for recalling the moment in “Jurassic Park” when Dr. Ian Malcolm smirks at a team of genetic engineers and warns them, “Life finds a way.”

At the S.G.I. office, Venter suggested we step outside to visit the greenhouse, where the most promising strains of algae were already growing in open air. We met up with Jim Flatt, the chief technology officer, and followed a narrow path through woods until we emerged at a massive glass facility. We stepped into a staging area filled with hoses and flasks, beside a laboratory stacked with computers and machines. Through a wall of windows, we could see into the main room, where algae was growing in vats under bright sunlight. Each was affixed with a small plastic tube that piped in shots of carbon dioxide. “We use bottled CO2,” Flatt said, “but in an industrial facility, we would use an industrial source. That could be captured from a power plant. It could be captured from a geothermal resource. It could be captured from a cement plant. Or it could be captured from a refinery.”

As Flatt and I poked around, Venter wandered over to chat with a scientist monitoring the algae on a computer, then he stooped by a benchtop shaker with four conical flasks of algae. Three of the samples were deep green; the fourth was brilliant yellow. Venter explained that the yellow algae was the first strain engineered by S.G.I. to include a portion of synthetic DNA. In fact, the color of the algae was the synthetic modification. Changing the pigment of algae may seem trivial, but it represents a critical factor for commercial success. One challenge to growing algae at scale is that a successful strain, by definition, tends to reproduce quickly and turn dark green. This blocks sunlight to the algae below, and requires more-frequent care and harvest. A strain engineered to a lighter color could allow the organisms to grow more densely without obstructing essential light. The yellow algae in Venter’s greenhouse was just the first to include a synthetic adjustment, but it would be followed by a series of similar changes. Even as the company modified pigment, it could also experiment with synthetic alterations to boost the production of oil and even force the algae to secrete that oil into surrounding water. “Their objective is to grow and survive,” Flatt said, “not necessarily to produce things for us. So that’s where the engineering comes into place. We say, ‘We’re going to force you to give it up.’ ”

We stepped into the main room of the greenhouse and walked between huge tubs filled with algae. The next step, Venter said, was to move the algae outside into large ponds. “None of this can be done at the lab scale and have any meaning,” he said. “People take stuff in a little test tube and multiply it by several million or something, and claim they have these yields. But nothing works the same in a giant facility. Most things fail when you take them outside.” To that end, S.G.I. had recently purchased an 81-acre parcel of land about 150 miles away, right beside the Salton Sea, where it can begin to cultivate its most successful strains. The site, he added, also sits near a geothermal power plant, which doesn’t burn fossil fuels but does release carbon dioxide from underground. Venter was already in discussion with the plant’s owner to divert its carbon emissions into the algae. It was possible that, within months, his algae would be turning pollution into food and oil.

We came to the last tub in the room, filled with the telltale yellow: a culture of synthetically modified organisms growing in the open air. They were the color of lemon-lime sports drink and, in the bright sunlight, had a radiant glow. It was like peering into a bathtub filled with the juice of 1,000 light sticks.

Venter gazed happily at the algae. “The photosynthetic process has been working for about three and a half billion years,” he said. “This is the first major change.”

The Art of Creating Life

Venter’s house above La Jolla is a swirl of clean, modern lines, with a sprawling kitchen at one end and hideaway nooks all around. There is a wine room that doubles as a walk-in humidor, an outdoor pool that seems to reach into the ocean and, in the garage below, an electric Tesla Roadster that pops from 0-60 in less than four seconds.

Two weeks ago, Venter met me at the door in jeans and a sweatshirt, and we sat down to chat on a brown leather sofa overlooking the Pacific. Nearby, a six-foot sculpture of a humpback whale leapt from a knotty burl of hardwood. Venter took a sip of a drink and leaned back with a sigh. “It’s too bad we have to do an interview,” he said.

Over the last decade, I have followed Venter’s work closely, which often meant following Venter himself on strange and harrowing journeys. Through the years, I’ve sailed with him, flown with him, dived with him and raced across the desert on motorcycles with him, often against my better judgment and at speeds I prefer not to recall. Many of Venter’s peers in science find his reckless hobbies and temperament obnoxious. No story about his work fails to mention the legion of biologists who despise him or the legendary berth of his ego. This hostility comes partly from his entrepreneurial approach to science. After he challenged the Human Genome Project in the 1990s, he was accused by the eminent James D. Watson, who was a co-discoverer of the structure of DNA in 1953, of trying to “own the human genome the way Hitler wanted to own the world.” But to the colleagues who have worked with Venter for decades, his reputation as an egotist can be puzzling. At a dinner table or a cocktail party, Venter is far more likely to brag about his skill at dominoes than any professional accomplishment, and he quickly becomes awkward and irritable when a crowd of admirers surrounds him at a reception.

This is not to say that Venter is modest. He is not. But what defines him is less the show of ego than its immovable mass. When Venter tackles a scientific problem, he tends to ignore just about everyone else working on it and to dismiss whatever approach they are taking — and shoot for the fastest way to beat them to the finish line. Speed is Venter’s muse and siren. The same manic energy that propels him into race cars and speedboats animates his professional life, leaving behind as many enemies as breakthroughs.

When Venter announced, in 2010, that he brought to life the first bacteria with entirely synthetic DNA, he was met with equal parts ceremony and dismissal. Many scientists hailed the achievement as a watershed moment in human history. “The ability to design and create new forms of life,” the prominent physicist Freeman Dyson proclaimed, “marks a turning point in the history of our species and our planet.” Yet others insisted that, because the DNA was modeled on a natural organism and was inserted into a natural cell, the claims of “synthetic life” were overblown. “He has not created life, only mimicked it,” the Nobel laureate David Baltimore insisted.

When I asked the bioethicist Arthur Caplan about these extremes of adulation and indifference, Caplan did not hesitate. Though he has criticized the Obama ethics commission for underestimating the risk of synthetic biology, he praised Venter himself as revolutionary. “He’s about three major innovations back from the Nobel Prize he should have gotten already,” Caplan said. “When you have the kinds of breakthroughs and insights that he’s had, it’s inexcusable that you wouldn’t reward that kind of work with the Nobel — and it has to be battles over personality and character, more about him than anything else.”

When I asked Venter about his reception among scientists, he was uncharacteristically nonchalant. “Some senior biologists, who in theory should know better than anybody else, keep talking about the importance of the cell,” he shrugged. “They argue: ‘Well, the cell contributed something. It can’t just be the DNA.’ That’s like saying God contributed something. The trouble for these people, it is just the DNA. You have to have the cell there to read it, but we’re 100 percent DNA software systems.” He pointed out that when his lab inserted the DNA of one organism into the cell body of another, the cell became a different organism.

Venter was quick to acknowledge that he still hadn’t created a microbe that serves an innovative purpose. “Sorry we didn’t design some new creature that never existed before as our opening gambit,” he said with a laugh. “What we published was the proof of concept. It’s like: ‘Gee, it would be really nice if the Wright brothers made a supersonic jet! Because that would have been much more useful!’ ”

This seemed like a good opportunity to ask Venter whether he had come any closer to that goal — whether, in addition to the algae modification at S.G.I., his team at the institute was working on another whole-genome assembly. Since the May 2010 announcement, Venter has been comparatively quiet, but it would be unlike him not to silence his critics. I asked him how far he had come over the last two years.

Venter was quiet for a long time. He nodded his head, as if making some calculation, then he said: “We’re doing a grand experiment. We’re trying to design the first cell from scratch.” He suggested we head into town for dinner with his two closest partners in synthetic biology, to discuss the leap they were about to take.

“It’s a little bit of a black art,” he said.

Starting From Scratch

Venter’s closest collaborators in the lab are Hamilton O. Smith and Clyde A. Hutchison III, each vaunted in his own right. Smith shared a Nobel Prize in 1978 for his work on restriction enzymes, and Hutchison’s long pedigree in genetic mapping began in 1975, when he helped the pioneer Frederick Sanger sequence the first genome of a virus, for which Sanger shared his second Nobel in 1980. At 80, Smith is tall and genial, with hearing aides and a slight stoop; Hutchison is 10 years younger, with a boyish flop of hair in his eyes and an air of perpetual worry. Together they enjoy a crotchety rapport that delights Venter endlessly. “They’re like the two old guys in the balcony on the Muppets,” he said. “But they’ve both reached a point in their careers where they can afford to take risks they never would’ve taken 20 years ago — it’s like having the oldest, smartest postdocs in the world.”

As we settled around a dinner table in downtown La Jolla, a waitress delivered foie gras from the chef, setting a plate between Smith and Hutchison, who immediately lurched forward to examine it.

“What’s that?” Hutchison asked.

“Goose liver,” Venter said.

“Oh,” Hutchison said. “I like liver.”

Smith frowned. “It’s glycogen,” he observed.

“Yeah, glycogen,” Hutchison said. “Glycogen is almost like carbohydrate.”

“It is carbohydrate,” Smith said.

Hutchison nodded. “You shouldn’t eat a lot of liver if you’re on a low-carbohydrate diet,” he said.

Then they both attacked it with their forks.

Venter and Smith first met at a conference in Spain in 1993, when Smith approached Venter after a lecture. Venter was just 46, but he was already preceded by controversy. He had recently left the N.I.H. to map gene fragments in his own lab and was licensing the results to a private company, which raised alarms about privatizing life. After his lecture, Venter recalled over dinner: “Ham came up, and his first statement was, ‘Where are your horns?’ And I said, ‘What?’ He goes: ‘You’re supposed to be the devil. Where are your horns?”’

Smith let out a guffaw. “Well,” he said, “he had inflamed a lot of the academics!”

Within months, Smith had joined Venter’s nonprofit, and in 1995, they completed the first genetic sequence of a bacterium, expanding on the work at Sanger’s lab two decades earlier. As a follow-up, they reached out to Hutchison, who was studying another bacterium at the University of North Carolina, and offered to map its genome for him. Two days later, Hutchison mailed a vial of DNA to Venter and Smith. “If that was to happen now,” Smith said, “it would have been three months and a bunch of lawyers.” Hutchison shrugged. “They made me an offer I couldn’t refuse,” he said.

Venter and Smith worked quickly. Using the method they developed for the first bacterium, they completed a genetic map for Hutchison in three months. But as all three men studied the second genome, which was only a third the size of the first, they began to wonder how much smaller a genome could get. What was the fewest number of genes that could sustain a free-living organism?

“I think any good inquisitive scientists in our position would have asked those same questions,” Venter said. “But how do you get there? The limits of molecular biology don’t give you enough tools.” Working together, they began to winnow down the genome by inserting snippets of DNA that interrupt gene function, on the theory that any gene that could be disrupted without killing the cell must not be essential. In 1999, they published a paper in the journal Science describing “1,354 distinct sites of insertion that were not lethal,” and speculating that more than a quarter of the bacterium’s DNA might be superfluous. But there was still no way to be sure — no way to knock out all the nonessential genes at once and see if the organism survived. In the final sentence of their 1999 paper, they proposed a novel solution: “One way to identify a minimal gene set for self-replicating life would be to create and test a cassette-based artificial chromosome.”

Create a chromosome. This was still far beyond the reach of science, and in hindsight, marks one of the earliest references to synthetic biology as we know it today. But by the time the paper appeared, in December 1999, Venter and Smith had turned their attention to the human genome project at Celera, which would consume their attention for three years. Looking back, Venter says, “the human genome was a detour.” As soon as the Celera map was complete, they returned to the synthetic project. In 2003, they developed a new method to assemble fragments of DNA and built their first virus; when that worked, they scaled up to bacteria, ultimately writing their names and quotes in its code, but the real prize was, and remains, to build the stripped-down organism they first proposed in 1999 — a free-living bacterium with less DNA than any in nature. It would not only test their theories about essential genes but would also provide an ideal framework for future organisms. Once they had the minimal genome, they could use it as a chassis to attach other genes: maybe a component to feed on sulfur or a module to generate hydrogen or both.

“That’s why it’s so valuable,” Venter said. “If we’re going to design really complex biological machinery, it has to have these fundamentals.”

But the minimal genome may raise an even more fundamental question, one that touches on the nature of innovation itself. When we think about technological change, most of us view progress through a narrow lens: we imagine new gadgets and devices that will streamline our modern lives, bringing the most technically advanced civilization in history to new heights of technical advancement. Yet the innovations that really matter in the long term may not have much to do with advancement at all. They may have less to do with improving our own standards of living than with extending those standards around the world. As the global population continues to rise, the greatest technological challenge we face may be to avoid leaving large tracts of the earth behind. The synthetic biology that Venter proposes, using a minimal genome as a platform to make advances in food, fuel, medicine and environmental health, could backfire into a biological calamity, but it could also offer the most transformative approach to a medley of problems with no apparent solution.

“Agriculture as we know it needs to disappear,” Venter said. “We can design better and healthier proteins than we get from nature.” By this, he didn’t mean growing apples in a Petri dish. He meant producing bulk commodities like corn, soy and wheat, that we use in processed products like tofu and cereal. “If you can produce the key ingredients with 10 or 100 times the efficiency,” he said, “that’s a better use of land and resources.”

As we enjoyed a decidedly real dinner of lobster and fresh vegetables, Venter explained that he was just days away from trying the first synthesis of a minimal genome. For two years, even as the team at S.G.I. has been working to cultivate algae, the institute has been poring over research to design a new genome. Eventually, the process grew tedious. “Up to three weeks ago,” Smith said, “we were on a very gradual course, and we were looking at a long time to get the thing completed. So Craig says, ‘Damn it, let’s make a guess, and synthesize the darn thing based on what we know, and maybe it’ll work!’ ”

Venter laughed. “I call it the Hail Mary Genome.”

Just days earlier, he said, they completed two designs — one led by the office in Maryland, the other by Hutchison’s team in California. In the days ahead, they would begin assembling both. If either worked, it would represent the smallest genetic code of any free-living creature on earth, one that would be impossible to dismiss as a copy. Even as we sat at the dinner table, it was possible that Venter, Smith and Hutchison already had it; that somewhere in their lab, they held the design for the first custom organism made from synthetic DNA.

Hutchison said he was encouraged that the two drafts overlapped. “There are about 30 genes different between the two,” he said.

Smith grinned. “I’m gonna go with Clyde’s draft,” he said.

“Well, mine is smaller,” Hutchison said. “I think maybe we’re going to pick some of the pieces from one design and some from the other.”

“We’re also trying to re-engineer the genome in a much more logical fashion,” Venter said. “We’re doing it in the form that, if there was a God, this is how he would have done it.”

“Evolution is very messy,” Smith added.

“We’re trying to clean it up,” Venter said.

“What’s the time horizon?” I asked.

“I have some ideas that, within the year — ” Hutchison began.

Venter shook his head. “Before the end of summer,” he insisted.

Hutchison chuckled.

“It might be the end of summer,” Smith said.

“It’s going to be the first rationally designed genome,” Venter said.

“Actually, my preference would be not to do the fine needlework,” Smith said. “I would just take the very largest 30 or 40 clusters and remove those.”

“We can do that,” Hutchison said.

“Let’s do it,” Smith said. “The hell with the rest of them.”

Wil S. Hylton is a contributing writer for the magazine. He last wrote about the state of U.S. biodefense preparations .

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July 21, 2004

Rocking the Boat: J. Craig Venter's Microbial Collecting Expedition Under Fire in Latin America

Submitted by ETC Staff on Wed, 2004-07-21 23:00

Civil society organizations (CSOs) and peoples’ movements convening at the first Americas Social Forum in Quito, Ecuador, July 25-30 2004, are protesting J. Craig Venter’s US-government funded ocean expedition to collect and sequence microbial diversity from around the globe. Exotic microbes are the raw materials for creating new energy sources and even new life forms.

"Venter’s microbe-hunting expedition raises serious unanswered questions about sovereignty over genetic resources and resource privatization through patenting," says Silvia Ribeiro of ETC Group who will attend the Social Forum. "Will the world’s microbes being collected by Venter become the raw ingredients for his research on the creation of new life forms? What role will Venter’s functionalized life forms play in nanobiotechnology, where scientists are merging living and non-living materials to create human-directed machines? The worst-case scenario is that these new life forms will form the templates for deadly bioweapons."

Operating from Venter’s 90-ft. yacht, the Sorcerer II, researchers collect samples approximately every 200 miles. Researchers have already collected marine and soil samples in Bermuda, Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, Chile and Ecuador’s famous Galapagos Islands – among other sites. The Sorcerer II left the Galapagos in March for French Polynesia and will continue circumnavigating the globe by way of the South Pacific’s New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, across the Indian Ocean to Madagascar, around South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope and then up to the mouth of the Amazon River. The voyage will end with a trek through the Caribbean and back to the eastern coast of the US.

The flamboyant biologist, J. Craig Venter, is no stranger to controversy. Venter is best known for his commercial quest to sequence the human genome in just three years, his audacious patents on human gene sequences, and, more recently, his goal to construct a novel, artificial life form in the laboratory – an undertaking he abandoned in 1999 because of potential abuses by bioterrorists. Since 2002, with a green light from a panel of bioethicists, Venter’s non-profit Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives (IBEA) has received over $12 million dollars from the "Genomes to Life" program of the US Department of Energy to create new life forms in the laboratory. Venter’s goal is "to direct the biology of the first man-made species" which he believes will play a major role in bio-remediation, the production of chemicals and new pharmaceuticals. Last year, Venter and Nobel Laureate Hamilton Smith took just 14 days to assemble a known bacteriophage consisting of 5,386 base pairs of synthetically produced, commercially available DNA. IBEA asserts that the synthesis "poses no health or ethical concerns."

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COMMENTS

  1. Boat Focus: Sorcerer II

    Sorcerer II was designed by famed Argentinian naval architect German Frers. During Venter's research voyages, the boat — currently under different ownership, Venter sold it in 2019 — was equipped with a 300 horsepower 6CTA8 3M Cummins diesel with an adjustable pitch Max Prop propeller and fuel tankage of 2,324 gallons and water tankage of ...

  2. Home

    After sequencing the human genome and embarking on a reimagining of his Institute and future research, J. Craig Venter, Ph.D. set upon a project combining his two loves: sailing and science. In 2004, after a successful pilot project where the DNA was collected and sequenced at the Bermuda Atlantic Time Series site, Dr. Venter and a team from ...

  3. Craig Venter's Epic Voyage to Redefine the Origin of the Species

    Venter can get off the boat anytime and fly back to the States to conduct business, then rejoin the crew later. If Howard were to leave, the expedition would stop. ... "J. Craig Venter, the ...

  4. The Voyage of Sorcerer II

    Boarding the Sorcerer II, a 100-foot sailboat turned research vessel, Venter traveled over 65,000 miles around the globe to sample ocean water and the microscopic life within.In The Voyage of Sorcerer II, Venter and science writer David Ewing Duncan tell the remarkable story of these expeditions and of the momentous discoveries that ensued—of ...

  5. The Voyage of Sorcerer II traces an expedition to unlock the genetic

    J. Craig Venter's new book is a personal account and a mid-life reset: 'I found a way to sail around the world on my own boat and do science and get paid for it'

  6. Craig Venter

    Craig Venter. John Craig Venter (born October 14, 1946) is an American biotechnologist and businessman. He is known for leading one of the first draft sequences of the human genome [1] [2] and assembled the first team to transfect a cell with a synthetic chromosome. [3] [4] Venter founded Celera Genomics, the Institute for Genomic Research ...

  7. From Sequencing to Sailing: Three Decades of Adventure with Craig Venter

    In a fireside chat, moderated by Kevin Davies, PhD, J. Craig Venter, PhD, reflected on his career pioneering advances in genome sequencing and the evolution of genomic medicine over the past 30 years.

  8. The Voyage of Sorcerer II: The Expedition That Unlocked the Secrets of

    Boarding the Sorcerer II, a 100-foot sailboat turned research vessel, Venter traveled over 65,000 miles around the globe to sample ocean water and the microscopic life within. ... J. Craig Venter is founder, Chairman, and CEO of the J. Craig Venter Institute, a nonprofit research organization. He is cofounder of the biotechnology companies ...

  9. PDF Geneticist J. Craig Venter: 'I consider retirement ...

    Books & arts. Geneticist J. Craig Venter: 'I consider retirement tantamount to death'The human genome 'maverick' talks sequencing the ocean, setting up a health-screeni. fter checking his ...

  10. Harvard Science Book Talk: J. Craig Venter, in conversation with

    Boarding the Sorcerer II, a 100-foot sailboat turned research vessel, Venter traveled over 65,000 miles around the globe to sample ocean water and the microscopic life within. ... J. Craig Venter is founder, Chairman, and CEO of the J. Craig Venter Institute, a nonprofit research organization. He is cofounder of the biotechnology companies ...

  11. Buy Craig Venter's Ultra-Luxurious Lab Yacht Today!

    Current owner J. Craig Venter, wealthy maverick geneticist. ... You can't afford not to buy this boat. Type Sailing sloop Year 1998 Top speed 10.5 knots Plush rating Bentley Engine 300-hp diesel ...

  12. Craig Venter Biography

    J. Craig Venter's Amazing Decade. ... Venter's 95-foot sailboat, leaves Halifax, Nova Scotia, on a two-year circum­navigation of the globe in search of new microbial species for DNA sequencing.

  13. Craig Venter: Science, sailboats and making room for creativity

    (Aug. 16, 2018) Craig Venter wants to talk about sailing. He may be the man whose work in sequencing the human genome defined much of scientific advancement in the 20th

  14. He Leaves His Body to Science, His Heart to Sailing

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  15. Joining 3.5 Billion Years of Microbial Invention

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  16. Craig Venter's Bugs Might Save the World

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