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Live from San Diego, Craig Venter: “Are we all just software?”

By Bob Seeman (This conference is an annual invitation-only Wall Street Journal CIO Network in San Diego.)
Today, J. Craig Venter, Ph.D., known for first sequencing the entire DNA code of a human, gave a speech entitled “Are we all just software?” The talk took place at the annual invitation-only Wall Street Journal CIO Network in San Diego.
Dr. Venter is now the CEO of Human Longevity Inc. Venter discussed a range of subjects related to genetics including “life as software”, perfect pitch, drug-resistant bacterial infections, “biological teleportation”, and evolution.
I asked him why life is like software. Venter explained that “life is a DNA software-driven process.”
“We’re going to have to learn to adapt to the concept that we are a software-driven species and understand how it affects our lives. Change the software, you can change the species, who we are,” he said.
It takes time. Venter commented that there has not been much interpreted from his own genome, which was the first ever sequenced 15 years ago. The challenge, he said, “is finding out how to read the software.”
Dr. Venter meant that the DNA sequence of humans and of infectious agents are the software of life. However, only the infectious DNA software can be changed, not that of the human.
Are you born with the ability to hit the right notes perfectly or is this something you have to learn – and can we all learn it? As a simple example of how life is programmed in our genetic DNA, Venter stated that “perfect pitch is 100% genetic.”
About 1 in 10,000 people have perfect pitch, the ability to identify or re-create a given musical note without the benefit of a reference tone. That explains why it is so hard for me to learn to sing well. I was born with slightly more than average imperfect pitch.
“More people in the US die from drug-resistant bacterial infections than car accidents,” said Venter. Many of the deaths in hospitals arise from antibiotic-resistant bacteria that can be altered by genetic modification of their bacterial DNA.
Venter discussed trying to codify genomes through “biological teleportation” – DNA sequences to synthesize proteins, living cells and viruses are transmitted across the Internet and then reconstructed by a digital printer. This way, flu vaccines can be replicated instantly.
Venter added that, “There’s no scientific reason for a mismatch between the virus and vaccine – it’s all the system that selects it.” Vaccines are made by immunizing animals with dead bacteria or dead viruses, but the gene structure of these dead organisms can be modified.
With a growing understanding of the human genome, doctors may be able to identify diseases earlier. DNA may be used to determine genetic predispositions. “Knowledge is power. You need to know predispositions to disease. You may have a gene with a predisposition but may also have several protective genes,” he said. “You want to know how to change outcomes.”
“The only way to stop evolving is to die,” he said. The human genetic DNA keeps constantly mutating at a very slow rate. The mutations are mostly randomly caused, that some say stem from the constant stream of cosmic particles. The gene mutations slightly alter the DNA sequence. Some mutations are beneficial while some are disadvantageous to the human’s lifetime. The mutations are inheritable.
To conclude his after dinner remarks before leaving for a night cap reception, Venter joked that “I’m hoping that alcohol is very important to evolution.” While alcohol does not cause mutations, it does provide brief relief from the daily stress of science in designing new genetic approaches to extend human longevity.
Bob Seeman is Chairman of The RIWI Corporation.
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