Sep 052010
 
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J. Craig Venter is moving past the human genome — for example, by designing algae that could replace fossil fuels.

THE scientific rebel J. Craig Venter created headlines — and drew comparisons to Dr. Frankenstein — when he announced in May that his team had created what, with a bit of stretching, could be called the first synthetic living creature.

Two months later, only a smattering of reporters and local dignitaries bothered to show up at a news conference to hear Dr. Venter talk about a new greenhouse that his company, Synthetic Genomics, had built outside its headquarters here to conduct research.

The contrast in the fanfare reflects the enormous gap between Dr. Venter’s stunning scientific achievements and his business aspirations.

Dr. Venter, now 63, made his name as a gene hunter. He was co-founder of a company, Celera Genomics, that nearly left the federally funded Human Genome Project in the dust in the race to determine the complete sequence of DNA in human chromosomes. He garnered admiration for some path-breaking ideas but also the enmity of some scientific rivals who viewed him as a publicity seeker who was polluting a scientific endeavor with commercialism.

Now Dr. Venter is turning from reading the genetic code to an even more audacious goal: writing it. At Synthetic Genomics, he wants to create living creatures — bacteria, algae or even plants — that are designed from the DNA up to carry out industrial tasks and displace the fuels and chemicals that are now made from fossil fuels.

“Designing and building synthetic cells will be the basis of a new industrial revolution,” Dr. Venter says. “The goal is to replace the entire petrochemical industry.”

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