Recently (Oct. 21, 2013), Craig Venter was interviewed by Charlie Rose on Rose’s TV show. They discussed the contents of Venter’s new book, “Life at the Speed of Light”. When asked by Rose which of his many scientific achievements he was proudest of, Venter said (I’m saying it in my own words, not his) that he was proudest of having pioneered a new, faster way of doing scientific research than the conventional way normally used by Academia and public research.
Venter certainly has a very good track record of doing just that: setting up large, highly effective, quick paced, privately and publicly funded, mini-Manhattan projects that bring together a vast array of very talented scientists and engineers.
Let me review some history in case you have forgotten it or never learned it. The privately funded company Celera, founded by Craig Venter when he couldn’t get funding from the NIH, put fire under the feet of the publicly funded Human Genome Project (HGP), causing HGP to finish mapping the human genome years ahead of schedule. Furthermore, HGP did so using the shotgun approach to mapping genomes, an approach which is today the de facto standard for doing this, but which the HGP had been deprecating before Venter’s competition caused HGP to adopt it. Celera and HGP published simultaneously (one day apart) the first ever human genome maps on Feb 2001.
To me, this is a great example of how private industry can accelerate scientific progress by providing competition and/or additional funding to publicly funded research.
Check out the following article in which Venter, now 68 years old, admits to having wet dreams about using quantum computers for genetic research.
Science: Can we extend healthy life?
(by Clive Cookson, FT magazine, March 14, 2014)
Craig Venter, who became a scientific celebrity by sequencing the human genome in the 1990s and then moved on to microbial synthesis, is returning to human genomics on a grand scale.
He has set up a company in San Diego called Human Longevity Inc or HLI, which “will build the largest human [DNA] sequencing operation in the world”. As the name suggests, HLI aims to discover how we age in order to improve health as the process takes hold.
The DNA reading technology comes from Illumina, the genetic instrumentation maker, whose latest HiSeq X Ten machines can sequence tens of thousands of human genomes a year, each containing three billion letters of genetic code. Illumina has joined a group of wealthy private investors in putting up $70m to fund HLI for its first 18 months.
To make sense of these various components – human genomes, microbiomes, metabolomes, stem cell science and, of course, participants’ health records – will require data analysis on an epic scale. Venter believes his computers will be up to the task but he is not overconfident. “That’s not clear yet,” he admits. “A quantum computer would be ideal for this but we can’t wait for quantum computing to solve these problems.”
Other organisations in the public and private sectors in the US, Europe and China are embarking on similar projects to sequence 100,000 or more genomes and relate these to participants’ health records. But none has the depth and breadth of HLI, Venter maintains.
The most mysterious venture is Calico, which Google launched last September with an apparently similar mission to HLI, to extend healthy lifespan. Google has released few details about Calico and Venter still knows little about its activities.
I think it’s a sure thing that QCs will eventually be indispensable to genomics. I believe this can occur in the next 10 years if Venter tactics are used to accelerate QC development. I advise Craig Venter, his coworkers, and Illumina workers to watch this YouTube video. It’s a QC talk given by John Martinis at Google LA on Oct 2013. I sure hope Martinis and Venter become friends if they aren’t already.
I’ve mentioned Martinis many times before in this blog. I will say more about this superb Martinis Video in a future post.