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Leading American scientist shares insights during student lecture

02/23/12 -  

Dr. Craig Venter shared insights from his work and spoke about the innovative research he's leading during a special lecture for Queens students on Feb. 23.

Venter is regarded as one of the leading scientists of the 21st century for his numerous invaluable contributions to genomic research.  The discoveries he has pioneered - including mapping the human genome - are being used to create new vaccines, clean energy sources and food products.

His visit to Queens, which included an evening lecture for the public, was sponsored by The Learning Society at Queens.

During the lecture an audience member asked Venter about which project he is most proud of. He said many people assume it was mapping the human genome, but he believes his work in creating the first synthetic life form will affect humanity in more profound ways.

Venter is founder, chairman and president of the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI), a not-for-profit, research organization with approximately 400 scientists and staff dedicated to human, microbial, plant, synthetic and environmental genomic research, and the exploration of social and ethical issues in genomics.

At the student lecture he spoke about his $600 million partnership with Exxon Mobil to use algae and sunlight to make fuel. He also mentioned being part of a "100-year starship" project that would enable human exploration of distant galaxies. "We're looking at how to make people radiation resistant, including thinking about ways to change our physiology," he said.

Queens biochemistry major Khang Tran asked Venter what the greatest ethical challenge in science today is and Venter said that working with creating sythentic cells is especially challenging.

"We are limited only by our imaginations as we deal with DNA, the 'software of life,'" Venter said. "A person's point of view depends upon their social and religious background. I don't want people to be able to just make things and put them in the environment. We have to have biological control of what we make so that it cannot live outside the lab. So the question becomes where the endpoint in the creation process should be."

Venter spoke about his work in developing vaccines more rapidly through a partnership with Novartis and the United States government. "We have been able to shorten the time it takes to make synthetic DNA from six to eight weeks down to 3 days or less," he said. "This is useful when you consider that the H1N1 vaccine took nine months to create and we were expecting that virus to cause a pandemic."

Biology major Erica Caceres said she's especially interested in the human microbiome and the natural flora on the body.  Venter shared that people have 200 trillion unique bacterial cells on our bodies which is even more than the total number of human cells inside our bodies.

"There is fascinating research that looks at bacteria in stomach ulcers, for example, that tells us more about the traits we share in families," Venter said. "We are finding new ways to understand human physiology."

Biology minor Catherine Henderson asked what the biggest setbacks have been in his career.

"In science about 99 percent of experiments fail at every stage," he said. "When we were doing the genomic code mapping there was one error in 1.1 million letters of the code. Once we found that, we created life."  

Venter began his formal education after a tour of duty as a Navy Corpsman in Vietnam from 1967 to 1968. After earning both a bachelor's degree in biochemistry and a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology from the University of California at San Diego, he was appointed professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo and the Roswell Park Cancer Institute.

"It's amazing to think that kids today are learning in middle school what I couldn't have had access to in graduate school," he said. "The world is changing so rapidly and that's exciting."

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