Independent geneticist J. Craig Venter raced an international consortium of scientists to map the human genome in the 1990s. Now he’s putting the same cutting-edge science to work on today’s energy crisis, engineering a whole new generation of biofuels. In a rare in-depth interview, we talked to Venter recently about his latest project to save the world, as well as historical flubs, today’s presidential candidates and the future of genetics. —Chris Ladd
So how did you get from mapping the human genome to creating biofuels?
We considered the biggest issues facing society that we thought we could impact. What’s happening to the environment and getting weaned off oil and coal are the biggest issues out there.
Is it similar to the genome project? More daunting?
Nobody thought that such a massive project as sequencing the human genome could be undertaken by a single team, like we did. But that challenge is minor compared to trying to replace the 30 billion barrels of oil that we use globally each year, and the 3 billion tons of coal. The scale of that is beyond my imagination.
I think the real challenge won’t necessarily come from biology, because biology is infinitely scalable, but from engineering. [If we can overcome that,] we have the potential to stop using oil and coal hopefully within the next 10 to 20 years, and even start reducing the CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere.
Craig Venter is a talented guy. I expect to hear more about him in the future.