In a quote written on a chalkboard in the Caltech archives, Richard Feynman said, “What I cannot create, I do not understand.”
This quote is the root of inspiration for geneticist J. Craig Venter’s research and scientific mission. Genomics is at an exciting stage today where what we understand about the genome can be applied directly to human health, Venter said in a lecture titled “From Synthetic Life to Human Longevity” on Wednesday.
Venter explained that there was no point in increasing lifespan alone, but the challenge was to increase an individual’s “healthspan.” He stated that 40 percent of men and 24 percent of women between the ages of 50-74 in the United States do not reach the age of 74. A third of this population dies of cardiovascular disease and another third of cancer, leaving all other causes of death to just a third of the overall percentage, he said.
Venter, co-founder of Human Longevity, Inc., said that his goal was to change medicine’s approach to being proactive, predictive, personalized, and preventative by using whole genome sequencing and cutting-edge imaging and measurement technology. “Early detection is literally lifesaving,” he said, explaining that over 40 percent of people who entered his lab thinking they were healthy turned out not to be.
He said that his own genome showed an increased risk for prostate cancer, which he corroborated with a measure of his testosterone levels. While men with over 22 triplet repeats of a certain sequence on their X chromosome have very low incidences of prostate cancer, Venter said he only had six, which placed him on the extremely low end of the spectrum. He said that based on his genome sequence and testosterone readings, he underwent a prostatectomy a few months ago.
Early prediction of diseases like Alzheimer’s, which can be predicted 20 years in advance of the first symptoms by using whole-genome sequencing and neuro-quant data, can be prevented with the right drugs, Venter noted. He added that the same could be done with cancer tumors, and there was the potential to move to entirely preventative cancer vaccines, something that already exists for some forms of the disease.
Venter said that genotype could predict not only disease but also other phenotypes. His Face Project uses machine learning to reconstruct a three-dimensional human face from the genome alone, he noted. Venter also said that recordings of a voice could be used to predict the speaker’s age, sex, and height.
All of this information comes from about 40,000 genome sequences that has produced over 20 petabytes of data, Venter explained. He added that the sequencing of one million human genomes could produce one quintillion bytes of data, an amount that nobody in the world knows how to handle, yet the government could not be convinced that genomics was a big data problem. Sequencing the first human genome, a project whose private arm was spearheaded by Venter, took over nine years, cost more than a billion dollars, and, in 1999, had the third largest computer in the world built solely for that purpose, he explained.
Venter’s other major project was the synthesis of a living organism from scratch, which he and his team at the J. Craig Venter Institute accomplished in 2008 by converting digital binary bits into an organism that could live on its own.
“The day we announced this, both the President and the Pope released statements, with the President calling for this to be the number one priority of the bioethics committee, and the Pope reassuring people that we had not actually created life, but just changed one of life’s motors,” he said.
Venter’s team also discovered that the genome could be modularized so that entire sets of genes could be classified as “metabolism,” for example, and inserted into the genome. He said that to distinguish this synthetic life from existing organisms, into the genome of the organism was coded the names of the forty scientists that worked on the project, and quotations from James Joyce, Robert Oppenheimer, and Feynman.
Venter explained that despite having created an entirely new organism, scientists still do not understand the functions of a third of the genes, only that they appear throughout the biological tree and are necessary for the organism’s survival.
“Like any good science, we found out how little we know rather than how much we know,” Venter said.
The event, part of the Princeton Public Lectures – Vanuxem Lecture Series, was attended by members of the community in addition to Princeton students and faculty. The lecture took place in McCosh 50 at 6 p.m. on Wednesday.