The Seed State of Science 2008

The inaugural edition of Seed's annual State of Science explores the current scientific landscape, from publishing to public perception, and profiles emergent hotspots.

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Bigger Faster Better

By Craig Venter | Posted November 20, 2008

algae cultures

Algae is cultured to produce biofuels at La Jolla, CA-based Synthetic Genomics. Co-founded by Craig Venter, the company is pursuing, among other things, engineering microorganisms for industrial applications. Photograph by Mark Mahaney.

As i have argued, data generation without big questions and computational approaches capable of answering them is only of trivial value. My team now has continued to apply the random selection and shotgun sequencing methods as a major discovery engine, exploring environmental research through "metagenomic studies," investigating life in the Sargasso Sea and also in the human gut.

Some have argued that our work is not traditional hypothesis- driven science but just a fishing expedition. They're wrong: We're just asking questions that are bigger than usual. As I like to remind my team, Charles Darwin started out observing and collecting species and specimens and only decades later provided unifying principals to explain what he witnessed. Analyzing 16S RNA sequences had demonstrated that nature holds far more microorganisms than anyone has ever been able to grow in a lab; sequencing the DNA from the viruses and organisms in seawater is a way to identify species that no one has ever seen before. We could know not just every species present but could also understand the overall metabolism and interactions of a particular ecosystem. The answers—so far—have surprised everyone by uncovering extensive biodiversity of organisms and extensive gene diversity. In just four years we've discovered nearly 20 million genes in the world's oceans with no end in sight. But I will only be satisfied if we can put together a bigger, clearer picture of microbial diversity and evolution of life on Earth.

It has recently been argued that the generation of large data sets is the new science. I agree only insofar as the data sets are used to ask and answer unique questions about life. It is clear to me, for example, that the only hope we have for understanding our own biology is to generate thousands of complete human genomes together with well-defined phenotypic data from the same individuals. Such data will reveal much about what is nature and what is nurture in our species. Likewise, extensive metagenomic analysis of the microorganisms associated with each of those individuals will likely reveal links between certain microbial populations and human health and disease.

My teams at the Venter Institute and at Synthetic Genomics Inc. are working to push scientific boundaries, from scaling up the sequencing and analysis of human genomes, to expanding environmental genomics on a global scale. We're also working on the more intimate human metagenomics— that is, the genomics of the other organisms living in our own bodies—as well as building upon the 3.5 billion years of evolution by learning how to write the genetic code ourselves to advance evolution. At Synthetic Genomics we are using our newly developed ability to write the genetic code to help provide key needs of society by attempting to create new sources of food, clean water, and renewable chemicals and fuels.

If we succeed at this it will be because we've continued to carry out some of the new approaches to science that my team has pioneered over the past 20 years: to try new techniques, to take risks, to ask basic questions about life, and to provide big goals, much bigger than any one person could accomplish. These components could help transform publicly funded science. Modern societies are now 100 percent dependent on science. To get the most out of it, we need to change what is funded and how it is funded, moving more and more of biology into "big science" with effective, competitive, independently managed, non-risk averse, multidisciplinary teams focused on understanding the complexities of life and using that new knowledge to the benefit of all.

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Bigger Faster Better
By Craig Venter
Posted November 20, 2008
Originally appeared in Seed 19

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