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Craig Venter, a necessary good

The scientist is like a naughty boy who is after the tasty tidbits, whether this is completing the human genome as fast as possible or making a bacterium from scratch

JCVIVenter (left) and Nobel laureate Ham Smith: the two made the first synthetic genomeJCVI

Craig Venter is once again news in journals, magazines and newspapers worldwide, this time because of the article on a bacterial cell guided by a genome that Venter’s group synthesized in a laboratory. This is the most recent chapter in a project that Venter has focused on for over a decade: creating a living being from scratch. Moreover, there are several competitors chasing after the same thing.

A major discovery? Or a daring lack of thought, a Pandora’s box that might lead us to self-destruction? The reactions to the article that he published in Science range from unconstrained praise to severe attacks, as always seems to be the case with Venter. He is that rare type of scientist that makes many uncomfortable, but who, to my mind, is extremely necessary.

First, he is in good company. His major partner of long standing, Hamilton Smith, or Ham Smith, as he is affectionately known, is a molecular biology genius. In the article about the first bacterium that was sequenced we see Venter and Smith. On the executive board of Celera, the enterprise created to compete with the public (but sluggish) project for the sequencing of the human genome, we find Venter and Smith again. And now, in this recent article, who are the leaders? Venter and Smith, of course, now accompanied by yet another molecular biology heavyweight, Clyde A. Hutchison III, who joined the team in 2003.

Experts will remember Hutchison as one of the pioneers in the introduction of  mutations  directed into genomes. Ham Smith, in turn, won the Nobel Prize many years ago (1978) for his discovery of nothing less than the enzymes of restriction, one of the most basic genome manipulation tools. Restriction enzymes are to genetic engineering like pencil and paper are to elementary schooling.

To understand Venter, I think about the human being as a child, a child left in a huge room called the world. The child fiddles with everything and sometimes burns its finger when it pokes a socket, but at other times ends up discovering how to climb onto a chair to reach the delicious tidbits found up top. Venter is this naughty boy who is chasing after the tidbits, whether these consist of completing the human genome as fast as possible or manufacturing a bacterium from scratch. Will this unbridled quest lead us to self-destruction? It might. However, there seems to be something stronger within us, a curiosity that is so violent that it makes one forget everything. Of course, there are all sorts of people in the world. Some have this relentless curiosity, others prefer to be mere spectators of life without fiddling with many things; most, however, stand between these two extremes.

In addition, come to think of it, the human species is not going to last forever, with or without Venter. Species evolve, some disappear, others appear. One should embrace a more sober, less passionate view of life. Although we may have the natural tendency to feel that human beings are central and important to the world, it is more likely that humans are merely just one more species that have come and that will go. We have already gone through other episodes in which we placed ourselves in an outstanding but undeserved position: we thought that the Earth was the center of the Universe, we thought that God had made us special. Two major letdowns for mankind, which many people, to this day, refuse to swallow (especially the second one).

Against prohibiting research
Two fundamental roles of science are to expand mankind’s knowledge and to discover new technologies. It is not up to scientists to determine whether these technologies are to be used to save lives, build armaments or for other purposes: this is a decision for society as a whole, generally taken at national level. In the current world, each country has sovereignty to decide how to use its technologies. Although there is strong international pressure against uses regarded as damaging, there is at present no multilateral body strong enough to impose its resolutions against the individual wish of countries.

To my mind, it would not be appropriate, as some advocate, to prohibit research along these lines. I believe that the generation of knowledge should be free, provided that it complies with the ethical standards that are currently in effect. From the standpoint of scientific ethics, Venter and his group went by the book: they did not use human beings, did not cause guinea-pigs to suffer unnecessarily and published their results in a journal that has widespread international circulation and that took the decision to make this article available to anyone with web access, regardless of whether or not this person subscribes to the journal. Thus, everyone can have access to it: researchers, students, terrorists, curious individuals, etc.

So relax, folks. We are not going to exist forever. If we are really going to vanish, at least we can try to influence the future a little, in however small a way, as to what the new species to inhabit the Earth will be. I, at least, refuse to give up keeping track of this. And now, thanks to the work of Venter and his team, I feel closer to achieving this.

João Meidanis as a director of Scylla Bioinformática and a senior professor at Unicamp.