By Jim Thomas

There’s a new version of an old joke going around: A recently deceased geneticist is being shown around the labs in heaven by St. Peter when he happens to look through a window and sees Craig Venter working away at the celestial lab bench. “I didn’t know Craig Venter had died,” says the geneticist. “He hasn’t,” replies St Peter. “That’s God – he’s just playing at being Craig Venter.”

For those who hadn’t previously heard of gene tycoon J. Craig Venter, the near saturation media reporting attending his latest lab experiment would have briefly given this niche joke a pretty wide audience. On the 20th of May 2010, the journal Science published a paper which included Venter among the authors, describing the ‘creation of a bacterial cell controlled by a chemically synthesized genome’. A team of scientists bankrolled by Venter’s private commercial company, Synthetic Genomics Inc, had built the world’s longest strand of manmade DNA and inserted it into a bacterial cell which in turn had assumed the identity of the synthesized genome (a goat bacteria called mycoplasma mycoides) going on to reproduce as such. “This is the equivalent of changing a Macintosh computer to a PC by inserting a new piece of software,” as Dr Venter likes to explain. Unusually for a genetics project the software, the DNA, was entirely manmade—all million base pairs of it. ETC Group nicknamed the new organism Synthia—a name which got widely picked up in the press, especially the UK press—much to Venter’s irritation, it seems.

Venter, whose mastery of public relations outpaces even his scientific skill, had spent several years priming the press for exactly this paper and missed no opportunity to play up the importance of Synthia in front of the public and investors alike. Within 24 hours, Google News recorded over 1,000 different news stories on the topic and Venter himself was doing the rounds of news stations: CNN, BBC, Fox, Al Jazeera. The UK’s Channel 4 news declared it “the biggest scientific story in history” while veteran inventor Freeman Dyson declared the news “a turning point in the history of our species and our planet.” Meanwhile, veteran geneticists were less impressed. “Craig has somewhat overplayed the importance of this,” said David Baltimore of Caltech. Others pointed out that the Venter team had merely copied an existing genome and added it to existing cellular machinery, mimicking life but not creating it. “Printing out a copy of an ancient text isn’t the same as understanding the language,” admonished George Church, arguably the leading pioneer of DNA synthesis.

Was Venter playing God? One transhumanist ethicist at Oxford, Julian Savulescu, said he might be, so all the press duly quoted him. Spokespeople for world religions, including the Vatican, chose wisely to hold their fire on judging the meaning of Venter’s experiment until after the smoke from the theatrical launch had cleared. Others noted that synthetic biology of this sort allows for creation of dangerous bioweapons and environmentally damaging biofuels – which it does and did even before Synthia hit the scene. However, much more practical commentary on the ‘meaning’ and significance of this particular breakthrough did find its way into broader discussion.

For a start, Venter’s announcement meant a lot more money for Craig Venter. Already touting his $600 million deal with Exxon to make synthetic algae for biofuels and his undisclosed deal with BP to turn coal into natural gas using microbes, Venter went on to unveil a new deal with pharmaceutical giant Novartis to use Synthetic Biology to produce next season’s influenza vaccine. Instrument maker Life Technologies, Inc., who had kindly donated half a million dollars to Venter’s supposedly not-for- profit outfit The J Craig Venter Institute (JCVI), then made ‘an equity investment’ in JCVI’s for-profit twin, Synthetic Genomics Inc, straight after the announcement. It also meant renewed focus on Venter’s bid to monopolize the new field of synthetic biology. While ETC Group had long ago accused Venter’s company of attempting to become the ‘microbesoft’ of synthetic biology through ludicrously broad patent claims, those concerns found new life championed by human genome pioneer Sir John Sulston, who told the BBC: “I’ve read through some of these patents and the claims are very, very broad indeed,” asserting that “they would have a monopoly on a whole range of techniques.”

In a way the biggest implications of the experiment went totally unreported. The process used to create Synthia heralded the proof of concept for a new means of genetic engineering, dubbed ‘whole chromosome engineering by homologous recombination,’ in which strands of synthetic DNA are built into a full genome using repair enzymes in yeast. Using this method Venter and his colleagues claim they will be able to robotically assemble millions of different full genomes per day, insert them into waiting hosts in order to screen the millions of different resulting new species for useful industrial properties. If this claim is true it massively increases both the speed of genetic engineering and the number of novel species it is possible to fabricate in parallel. Venter told a subsequent bioethics meeting that he is now constructing the robot to make such mass construction possible. It may not work since Synthia so far appears to be a ‘species specific hack’ requiring 2 particular mycoplasma species to enact the transformation. Even that won’t stop the unstoppable Dr Venter. He calls his new engineering system Combinatorial Genomics and a few years ago he told Wired magazine: “It’s one of my better ideas if it works. In fact, it’s one of my better ideas if it doesn’t work."

Not quite omniscient then but certainly omnipresent, at least in the media, this probably isn’t the last we’ve heard of Synthia and Craig.

Jim Thomas is a Research Programme Manager and Writer at ETC Group.

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