Craig Venter, Egoist

Published 3/29/11
Column, “Posthuman Forward,” Science 2.0
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“To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life.” James Joyce

Craig Venter is brilliant. Brilliant enough, you might say, to enter the ranks of literary gods. So brilliant, he might not even know it.

Venter wants to patent the human genome—all 2.9 billion base pairs of it. And why not? The pioneering geneticist is, after all, the man responsible for sequencing it. Venter first set his sights on the intellectual rights in the 90s while still president of Celera Genomics. Later, the company’s soured partnership with the publicly funded Human Genome Project served as a forecast of how genomics research might evolve as a competitive business enterprise, if the stakes ever went up. And they did.

In 2000, Celera won the genome race when Venter et al. produced a complete set of somewhere around 25,000 protein-coding genes ahead of schedule (98.5% of the projected total turned out to be other stuff). The genomics industry exploded, I got my first lab job and the rest is, as they say, history. But the best scientists are often the most tenacious; for Venter, decoding the recipe for humans wasn’t enough.

Flash forward ten years to 2010. It wasn’t exactly the year we made contact, but Venter made history (again) when his team became the first ever to create synthetic life. I’d say that beats meeting aliens. The bacterium-based life form was fitted with four unique “watermarks”—hidden in the DNA—to keep it traceable in case it ever got out. Venter played up the new technique, going so far as to embed an email address for whoever decoded the message first. And the message?

I’m guessing Venter wanted something personal, and meaningful, to brand his progeny—something more interesting than the average Google security question. What was the name of your first pet? In what town was your high school located? Or better, a famous world leader or influential philosopher.

Enter literary master James Joyce. Venter (a fan?) encoded a memorable line from Joyce’s semi-autobiography A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Turns out the gesture wasn’t quite good enough for the Joyce estate, because now the scientist is being sued. So much for paying the dead man a compliment. But something about this story goes far beyond typical legend and legality.

Invention, while often seen as something derived solely from logic and reason, has a strong creative component as well. Venter, if he wanted, could change the code’s mappings to reveal Yeats instead of Joyce. Or Kafka or Borges or Melville—have your pick—as long as the message was identical in length. Inscribing DNA with a literary quote, after all, isn’t exactly mind-blowing from a technological standpoint. The cultural implications, on the other hand, are nothing short of inspiring.

Venter may forever be known as the guy who gave life to man’s first bona-fide creation. But to discover a new literary genre in genetic code? Now that’s a triumph.