WHAT'S NEXT FOR CRAIG VENTER, WHOSE TEAM MAPPED THE HUMAN GENOME AND CREATED "SYNTHETIC LIFE?" MAYBE NEXT YEAR'S FLU VACCINE HE TELLS "60 MINUTES"
The microbiologist whose scientists have already mapped the human genome and created what he calls "the first synthetic species" says the next breakthrough could be a flu vaccine that takes hours rather than months to produce. Dr. Craig Venter talks to Steve Kroft and takes him on a tour of his lab on 60 MINUTES, Sunday, Nov. 21 (7:00-8:00PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network.
DNA programs all living things and now that his team has been able to create an organism with entirely man made DNA Venter argues that the potential to bioengineer useful things is nearly limitless. "I see in the future bioengineered almost everything you can imagine that we use," says Venter, the founder of the J. Craig Venter Institute, a non-profit research lab, and also Synthetic Genomics Inc., a for-profit biotech company. "The first things will start to come out in the next few years�possibly, next year's flu vaccine could come from these synthetic DNA processes," he tells Kroft. "Instead of months to make a new vaccine each year, we could do it in 24 hours or less." Watch a clip.
Venter is working with a pharmaceutical company to try to make the vaccine. He also sees possibilities for bioengineering other medicines, food and clean sources of energy � a project Exxon Mobil has committed $300 million to. Venter takes Kroft into a greenhouse, where he is trying to genetically enhance a type of algae that feeds on carbon dioxide and produces oil that can be refined into gasoline. It's the perfect equation -- reduce the harmful gas that is believed to cause global warming and create a fuel at the same time. But it's not so simple
"The question is on the scale that it needs to be done at," says Venter. "[It would require] facilities the size of San Francisco."
Using his lab and computer to create the first synthetic bacteria -- real life that can replicate itself -- is a stepping stone for Venter that others see as the opening of Pandora's Box. "We don't have too many choices now," Venter says. "We are a society that is 100 percent dependent on science. We're going to go up in our population in the next 40 years. We can't deal with the population we have without destroying our environment."
But is he playing God? Venter says he and his team are just understanding the rules of life. But he adds: "I believe the universe is far more wonderful than just assuming it was made by some higher power. I think the fact that these cells are software-driven machines and that software is DNA�that's truly the secret of life�is pretty miraculous."