A few months ago I wrote about the global ocean sampling project of the Venter Institute and explained how the expedition circumnavigated the world’s oceans discovering many new microbial life-forms as well as previously undiscovered proteins. By using technology developed through mapping the human genome, the institute now intends to manipulate bacterial DNA to create an organism that might one day be able to convert sunlight and ocean nutrients directly into biofuel. But Venter’s critics say it is dangerous to meddle with the building blocks of life and such work could lead to unimaginable consequences if it results in a virulent new form of bacteria.
In a recent lecture (44 mins video) at the BBC, Venter outlines his philosophy on using genomics to help satisfy the food and energy needs of humankind. The written text of his talk is also available. In my opinion genomics will be the defining technology of this century for a number of reasons. Firstly the logarithmic growth in the populations of the developing world has exceeded the carrying capacity of those regions. There is a stark choice between allowing wide scale starvation or employing technology to expand the supply of food and energy. Secondly, the genetic engineering “genie” is out of the bag already. It is far better to have this initial research being performed openly and with strict controls than by a corporation where there are conflicts of commercial risk versus ethical philosophy. Venter welcomes peer review and oversight. Finally, whether or not you agree with them, Venter and his colleagues are doing a great job of selling genomics as a safe, green and sustainable option for aiding humankind.
So is Venter a monster or a magician? And will New Zealand be able to participate in the genomics wave? As a maritime nation and with a proud record in biological research shouldn’t we be getting on board with this? It sounds like the kind of niche area New Zealand researchers could excel in. Venter is looking more and more likely to be the next Bill Gates. If our research institutions are not investing heavily in this area right now with partnerships and research projects, then we are destined to play catch-up downstream. This calls for proper public funding of the research and meaningful environmental protocols that protect whilst steamlining research project approval.