Will This Man Save Your Life?
There’s something Hemingwayesque about Craig Venter, and though he probably knows that, his real-man quality still feels authentic. Venter drinks Scotch—less than he used to, but still a fair amount. He races his collection of sports cars, including Aston Martins and a Ford GT, at Laguna Seca, a racetrack in central California. In the ’00s, he spent several years mapping the biology of the world’s oceans aboard a 100-foot sailboat, Sorcerer II. In 1997, he won a transatlantic sailing race. He owns a poodle named Darwin. And in the rest of his time, he is one of the world’s greatest living scientists and biotech entrepreneurs, now taking aim at two seemingly impossible targets: increasing human longevity and biological teleportation. Venter, 68, has a penetrating gaze that can make you feel like he’s thinking on multiple tracks. When we first sat down to talk at his Alexandria, VA, home overlooking the Potomac—Venter lives there and in La Jolla, CA—he introduced himself and promptly asked how I had prepared for our conversation. In fairness, Venter merits a lot of preparation: Modern genomics and the nascent field of precision medicine exist in large part because of his efforts. But success wasn’t inevitable for Venter, who grew up in modest circumstances in Millbrae, CA. His father was an accountant, his mother raised him and his three siblings. Venter remembers following his mother to the grocery store while pulling a Radio Flyer wagon in which to carry their food home. He was a poor student, and when he finished high school, his ambitions ran no further than surfing at SoCal beaches. But the Vietnam War intruded on his idyll. Venter was drafted, and the Marine Corps trained him to be a military medic, patching up bloodied soldiers in Da Nang. It was emotionally devastating work, and one day Venter swam far out into the South China Sea with the intention of letting himself drown. He came back from the edge of suicide, though, and returned to the U.S. in 1968 determined to succeed in medicine. The surf bum would become one of the world’s most influential scientists.
Q: What does Human Longevity Inc. (HLI) do?
We’re setting up a machine-learning enterprise. We hired Franz Och out of Google; he’s the one who built the Google Translate system. He wrote a self-learning algorithm that went out to the web and found every article in German that had been translated to English and vice versa, and learned from them how they did it. He didn’t have to learn [German] himself; the computer could learn the process. It’s pretty stunning. We sought him out because it’s not dissimilar to the process we want to apply to the genome.
Which is what?
We’re trying to build a system with the largest-ever data set in history, at least in medicine. Where, if you have the right phenotype, if you can describe a characteristic very accurately, and it has a genetic basis, the system will be able to solve, “What are the genetic components of that trait?” It doesn’t matter if it’s visual memory, or height, Alzheimer’s disease. Whatever you can feed in, if you can measure it accurately and it has a genetic basis, we will know how to predict that.
I’ve heard the study of genomics compared to the invention of flight—you had to wait a few decades before the technology progressed enough to be broadly useful. Where are we at with genomics? Is it a mature field? Is a 20-year-old field young or old?
In science, it’s very young. We’re in the early stages of being able to read the genetic code. Twenty years ago this June, I sequenced the very first genome in history. Five years later we scaled up to do the human genome—a huge leap. The first genome was about 2 million letters of genetic code versus 3 billion for the human genome.
One of the new machines we’re using today at HLI is 1,350 times the equivalent of everything we did 15 years ago [in terms of speed and processing power]—the entire operation. And we have 20 of those machines. The scale is following or exceeding Moore’s law, but our understanding is not changing at the rate of Moore’s law. I can’t tell much more about my genome today than 15 years ago.
Is the eventual goal to look at someone’s genome and identify targeted treatments from it?
Those are pretty rare things where we can read your genetic code and say, “This is the outcome, this is how you prevent disease.” But sometime in the future we will be able to read and understand the 6 billion letters in our code as though it were what it is—a software language. And we’ll know every subroutine in that language. So we’re trying to use it, for example, to predict a photo of your face from your genetic code. Or the sound of your voice from your genetic code. Ultimately, we should be able to create a genetic map of your brain.
Wouldn’t early detection of disorders and genetic mapping also give you different or better tools to fight diseases and disorders?
Probably half our genes are associated with our brain wiring and function. It’s not clear that we can undo the wiring pattern. But maybe we can change that gene and change that wiring pattern in advance. That’s not going to happen in the next two or three years, but it’s the direction this information will go in as we compile more and more, millions upon millions of genomes with accurately measured phenotypes.
And what are the implications of that knowledge?
There will be lots of social consequences of being able to basically predict the future from being able to read that software. If we know from your brain wiring or from the genes predicting the size of the hippocampus whether you are somebody with a photographic memory, or somebody who is not good at memorization, there might be totally different tracks to put people in with the education system.
Are these positive changes? You can imagine some dark scenarios.
You mean you predict someone is going to be really stupid?
And as a result, they find opportunities closed off to them and their lives aren’t what they might have been. Biology becomes destiny.
Well, only if those predictions become self-fulfilling. People are who they are. Just knowing [your potential], maybe it would provide people with a list of their unique strengths and career choices.
Are you concerned about the way societies are now using genomic data?
Hopefully our society is at the stage where it won’t misuse this. But there are a number of centers set up for [American] parents to test the potential athletic ability of their kids. China just outlawed genetic screening in all but a few major hospitals because the number one thing it’s used for is sex selection. Is that good for society? Clearly not. If that’s where our society’s norms are, we’re going to be in trouble.
“The “beam me up” from Star Trek, where you get dematerialized and reproduced at the other end, is not a very likely scenario.”
Another project you’ve been working on is a biological teleporter. Where does that stand?
The first part is being marketed this year. So you can buy one. It doesn’t do the entire step. It assembles the pieces of DNA to make larger segments of DNA.
Let’s say we take Craig Venter and send his DNA through the biological teleporter. Do we get Craig Venter on the other end?
We just learned that Spock died today—it’s very sad. But the “beam me up” from Star Trek, where you get dematerialized and reproduced at the other end, is not a very likely scenario. We’re sending the instructions. We’re sending the digital version of the genetic code and remaking that genetic code as DNA. If you have a complex system to basically put that DNA in an egg and get it maturing, you would start with a very young, miniature version of me.
And how would that be useful?
Elon Musk and others are anxious to colonize Mars. It’s pretty clear to me they can’t get rockets back and forth fast enough so if someone comes down with a Martian infection, they’re stuck. They could send that organism to us digitally, we could reproduce it, create a phage that could kill it and email it back to them.
Over the course of your career, you’ve often been described as egotistical and arrogant…
Those are the nice articles.
Is ego important in science?
We owe the history of everything that’s progressed in human life to people having ambitions, wanting to change the world.
That’s ambition. What about ego?
The ego part is the belief that you can do it. It’s relatively easy to do nothing in life. Anybody who has a goal beyond themselves can be accused, rightly, of having an ego. We have everything we have in this country because of people who pursued ideas and goals.
You had this terrible moment in Vietnam when you contemplated suicide. Now you’re launching Human Longevity to fight aging. Is death the big question that you haven’t come to terms with?
No. It’s something I had to deal with every day in Vietnam, and I probably had to deal with death more than most people in my generation. It would be actually very irresponsible, if we knew how to do it, to make everybody live to be 200.
We’re wiping out resources of the planet as it is. Maybe having people have shorter lifespans would be healthier for the planet.
Living to the same age but doing that with good health—that’s my personal goal. I would not want to live forever. I think that would be torture.
Well, if you’re the only one doing it, you’re constantly having other people’s lives cycle through yours. Part of human interaction is dealing with people you care about. If you live forever and you’re on your 12,000th wife, it probably gets old after a while.
Internet entrepreneur Dmitry Itskov wants to transfer human consciousness into machines. But no one ever seems to answer the question, “Why would I want to live longer?”
There is a class of people for whom it’s pretty clear why. You look at our new billionaire class, there’s no way that they can spend all of their money in their lifetime. They can’t even intelligently spend a fraction of it. If you acquired those resources late in life and you don’t have a chance to do anything with them, that’s probably frustrating.
You’re a wealthy man—what about you?
I’ve used most of the resources I’ve gotten building my institute. So it’s not about, can I get a bigger boat or a bigger airplane? It’s more around accomplishing things.
So death isn’t fundamentally a bad thing?
I’m not in a hurry to leave. I understand that there’s a difference between living 150 years and 10,000 years. The goal of HLI is to foster a healthy human lifespan.
And for some people, knowing their genomic data could add years well before they reach old age.
Larry Page [of Google] has made this argument that if you cure all cancer you only change the average lifespan in the U.S. by about three years. It’s just a brutal misuse of statistics and what they mean. If you have a child who dies at age 6 months from neuroblastoma, maybe it only changes the averages by a little bit, but to that person and that family, that’s a lifetime. That’s the whole point of using your personalized genetic code to tell you about your life. The averages don’t mean anything.
How do you wake up in the morning and say, “I’m going to study life”?
I made that decision a long time ago. Now, I’m more focused on the goals of the day. I’m past the age where, if I were working in Europe, I would have been forced to retire. A lot of people die within a few years of retiring because they lose their self-identification and their goals, but this is one of the most exciting phases [of research], so I need a certain amount of longevity to achieve these goals.
How do you think your own genetics have determined your intellectual and psychological traits?
Of course environment is important. I’ve maintained my curiosity, which is critical to have as a scientist, by not letting the education system destroy it in me.
I carry a gene that predicts increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease. I decided to have [a test that] measures the amount of amyloid [an abnormal protein] in your brain. The doctors involved were so worried about having me have this test that they wanted to do it under a pseudonym. They said it could really affect everybody’s view of my ability to function. Imagine if we knew how bad Ronald Reagan’s Alzheimer’s was before the election. But the results came back completely negative. It was a delightful discovery to find out that my brain has a good report card for the next 20 years.
It sounds like, in general, you prioritize genetics over environment.
Inherent genetic abilities are really key. Who’s this person with the silly notion that with 10,000 hours you can do anything?
It’s total BS. Yes, you can learn a skill set. It can’t make you the best in the world. There’s a swimmer body, there’s a sprinter body, there’s a high jump body. People self-select or get selected for these attributes. Does that mean the Olympics should go away? No. It just means we should recognize it for what it is and celebrate it.
Over your career, you’ve had a sometimes contentious relationship with government research institutions. Should the government have a role in science?
Government plays a central role in science. In fact, if it wasn’t for government funding, there wouldn’t have been a genome project for me to accelerate a thousandfold.
You value your freedom from bureaucracy.
You picked that up?
It wasn’t that difficult.
I would consider it pure hell to have to have a position in government, at any level.
It’s very hard to change these systems. Somewhere on the level of 90 percent of science funding in the United States is wasted. Maybe we can influence Congress, the next president, to try and do more about that. But I don’t think it’s changeable from within.
You’ve enjoyed a lot of success in life. Other than not being able to change the government, have you had any notable failures?
Failure’s not bad. If you’re not making mistakes, if you’re not trying and failing, you won’t learn and you won’t grow. There’s failing at what you’re doing and there’s failure in life. I don’t think I’ve failed in life.
But is there any particular mistake that you regret?
I sold some stock too early. [Here, Venter paused for almost a minute.]
I would not want to have to go back and relive any of my life. I’m not unhappy where I am and what I’ve accomplished so far.
What’s important to you now?
Convincing others of the power of this [genomic] information, the social responsibility required with this information.
There are going to be some real challenges in the future. If you’re a physician and you have all of this information available and your patient dies because you were ignorant of it, are you legally culpable? This will be changing our legal system and, in part, our value system. If knowledge is power, is too much knowledge in the hands of people who don’t know how to use it dangerous?
These are going to be big decisions we’re going to have to make as a society going forward.
Are you the person to make these decisions?
I’d much rather be drinking Scotch.