Remarks by J. Craig Venter at Syracuse University’s 157th Commencement and the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry’s 114th Commencement
Thank you, Chancellor Cantor, for a very warm introduction. I wish you’d told me that I was going to be following the mascot.
Chancellor Cantor, trustees, faculty, students: thank you for allowing me to come here to address you for your 157th commencement. I was honored to accept this invitation and to receive an honorary doctor of science, and I’d like to congratulate my fellow honorary degree awardees, particular Nick Donofrio, who I got to know when he was at IBM during our era to sequence the human genome.
Obviously most, I would like to congratulate you—the students— and your families. I know what an important day this is for all of you, not only from having gone through it myself years ago, but also as a father, with my son, Chris, graduating in June from UC-Santa Cruz.
I remember well the feeling of pride that I had first getting my B.A. and then my Ph.D. after barely graduating from high school, and then five years later starting my education over after being in the Vietnam War. I know how your parents feel, from the pride I have in my own son, who started his education over after working for years doing metal sculpture. I applaud you and your families for your efforts and accomplishments for being here today.
Let me first start by saying that for those of you who don’t know me, I’m obviously not Snoop Dogg, Bob Saget, or Martha Stewart, that some of you indicated would be more appropriate as a Commencement speaker than I would be. Now reading about this made me laugh, especially the part that I wasn’t controversial enough, because I’ve been hearing for 15 years about how controversial I was. So it was a relief to see the change. The New York Times wrote a few years back that if I wasn’t careful with all my discoveries, I would become the establishment. I hope this invitation to address you is not an indication that I’ve lost my edge. If not, then Chancellor Cantor and the faculty here must be doing something right, if they’ve instilled in you a healthy respect for controversy and an appreciation for bucking the system.
I think it’s essentially impossible to make advances, discoveries and improvements in the human condition without fighting the status quo and established mindsets. Perhaps that’s why some of you invited me here today. I sincerely hope most of you are ready to make that fight to change things because I cannot imagine a time in recent history where graduates have a greater challenge facing them. I was born in 1946 as one of only 2.3 billion people on our planet. Today, we have three of us for everybody that existed when I was born. And on October 26 of this year, we’re going to pass the 7 billion mark. At the current rate of population growth, we will add the equivalent of another India and China to the world’s population in the next 25 years. So just to put it in context with some of the things you’ve learned, when Columbus first sailed to America, the world’s population was only slightly greater than the current population of our country. It took until 1804 to get one billion people on the planet, and it took another 123 years, until 1927, to add the second billion. Today, it’s taking less than 12 years to add another billion people to our already crowded, finite biosystem.
So by your 10th college reunion, how are you going to produce enough food, clean water, medicine, housing, waste treatment and energy for nearly 8 billion people, when we can’t do that very well for 1 billion fewer today?
We very clearly need new ideas, new discoveries, new inventions, and new radical changes in how we produce food, how we generate energy, where that energy comes from and how we deal with these issues in society. Is this class of 2011 up for those challenges?
So by burning coal and oil and deforestation, we’re currently adding about 14 billion tons of CO2 to the atmosphere each year, as we play Russian roulette with our planet. Are you amongst those that believe that this extreme weather that we’re beginning to experience is simply due to random fluctuations?
Solar and wind technologies can only be part of the energy solution, and unfortunately the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan washed away in just minutes much of the hope of those who advocated nuclear solutions to some of these problems. We need new disruptive technologies that will change the fundamentals of how we deal with almost everything on the planet. We’re now at a point where we’re 100 percent dependent on new science and new technology and new breakthroughs for our future. Last century new technologies were based largely on physics. The world has changed and we’re now in what many have called the century of biology. And the leading edge of biological advances has been breakthroughs in genomics.
We just celebrated the 10th anniversary of our first decoding of the human genome, and from that, we learned some rather simplistic things—we learned we have about 20,000 genes instead of the hundreds of thousands that people had expected. And from our reading the DNA from an African American, two Hispanics, two Caucasians and a Chinese individual, we learned that we’re all extremely similar to each other, and that race is a social, not a scientific concept.
In 2007, my genome was the first one to be completely decoded, all 6 billion letters read. And now with new technology, we can actually sequence the genome from a single sperm cell or a single egg cell, allowing us to understand what many of you have been asking, and what most people ask: what genetic traits did you get from your mother; what did you get from your father?
All of today’s graduates will likely have your genome sequenced, and your children definitely will. In my view, genomics will become part of the way to reduce health care costs, while improving health quality through preventative medicine. Health care in the USA is currently 17 percent of GDP, and by 2020 it will be over 20 percent. And it’s clear we’re a very long way from being the highest quality care in the world. As you know, President Obama has driven perhaps what I consider to be the most important recent legislation by making health care accessible to all Americans. Now we have the challenge of improving the quality of that care while we reduce the cost. How will you help change our health care system, its quality and its expense?
From the analysis of my genome, I found that I have an increased risk for heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, melanoma and prostate cancer. Like many males in this country, I’ve taken a statin, which is one of the few preventative medicines available for heart disease and possibly Alzheimer’s disease. Awareness of the melanoma risk actually helped me with early detection and surgical removal of a tumor before it could progress to a dangerous stage. And annual monitoring of prostate cancer symptoms hopefully will aid in early detection if a tumor occurs.
Now here’s a real cheery statistic: 60 million people will die on this planet this year. But that number will grow to 68 million by 2030. About 10 percent each year die from injuries, including auto accidents, which for your age group is the No. 1 killer in the United States. Fifteen million of those 60 million will die from communicable diseases. But 37 million will die from non-communicable diseases, including heart disease and cancer. And that number—in your lifetimes—by 2030 is going to grow to 51 million people. So hopefully you can see the important role that genomics and preventative medicine can play in your future.
Some of our latest advances in genomics have been some of the most exciting to me. When we read the genetic code, we’re converting these A’s and C’s, T’s and G’s into digital information, the ones and zeros in the computer. I call this “digitizing biology.” We sequenced the first genome of a living organism 15 years ago, and since then we’ve been filling our computer databases with sequence information. My team’s recent efforts are now to go in the other direction. We start with this digital information in the computer, bottles of chemicals, and generate new life out of that computer. We actually chemically make the DNA and we boot it up in a cell. I call it “booting up” because just like software in a computer, your DNA is the software of life.
In 2007 we found that by changing the DNA in a cell, we could completely covert one species into another. So if you change the DNA, you change the species. We’ve now perfected the ability to write new genetic code from that digitized information and four bottles of chemicals. So this time last year we reported the construction of the first synthetic cell, a cell that self-replicating with a completely synthetic genome. This was the first species to have a computer as its parent, I don’t know if it will pay for its college.
We’ve added watermarks to the DNA to distinguish synthetic life from naturally occurring life. My team developed a new code to enable us to write the entire English language using the four letters of our DNA code. In the case of the first synthetic cell, we included the names of the 46 scientists that contributed to the project. We also included three quotations from literature, including one from James Joyce: “To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life.” Another one from American Prometheus, Oppenheimer’s biography: “See things not as they are, but as they might be.” And the last one from the late Richard Feynman: “What I cannot create, I cannot understand.”
We also included an email address built into the genetic code, which seemed appropriate for the first species to have a computer as a parent. So at Synthetic Genomics in La Jolla, we now have a computer software set for designing new DNA software, for creating designer cells to help harness the energy of biology for a wide range of applications, including new medicines and vaccines, new fuels, new green chemicals, food, nutritional products— all made starting with carbon dioxide.
Just think if we can harness the immense power of the billions of years of evolution, together with these new tools of synthetic genomics, that perhaps we have the opportunity to wean ourselves from burning ancient hydrocarbons for energy and transportation, all the while adding more CO2 to the atmosphere. I predict that carbon dioxide will become the future raw material for almost every human endeavor, from energy to chemicals to food. Exxon Mobil provided my company with $300 million to try and create a new algae cell that can produce more than 10,000 gallons of a new biocrude from carbon dioxide, per acre per year. This biocrude can go into their refineries that they can make normal gasoline, diesel and jet fuel from.
Many of you here are familiar with existing agriculture systems, but they’re incredibly inefficient, particularly when we try to use them for alternate energy production. So if we were to try and replace transportation fuels in the U.S. with corn-based fuels, it would require a facility three times the size of our country. If we could do this with synthetic algae, it would require a facility only one-third the size of the state of New York.
We’re now in an era where biology and synthetic genomics—and this is very important for this graduating class—we’re limited only by our imaginations right now. Perhaps we can create algae that taste like beef but with higher protein content and nutritional value to help feed a hungry world population. I’m sure you all know that on the order of five million children die each year from malnutrition, a number that’s likely to increase with the expanding population. In other areas we’re working with NASA trying to design new organisms that would enable distant spaceflight. But what if we could just send digital information into space and have it boot up sometime in the future into new living systems? New emerging infections like SARS and AIDS represent major challenges for the future. We’re working with Novartis trying to rapidly produce new flu vaccines using synthetic genomics. Our goal is to create vaccines against emerging infections in hours or days, instead of months or years.
Now commencement speakers usually give advice on how to be successful. I’m not going to do that. Few who knew me early on would have predicted my success. My path in life was profoundly altered by being drafted—off my surf board—and ending up as a medic in the middle of the Vietnam War. Most of you have no clue as to what unique challenges and highly motivating, life-altering experiences and events that lay in your path. I can only ask and hope that some of you will not get swallowed up into your everyday existence, but rather these incredible challenges for our future will incite you to want to change that future. Change is 100% dependent on motivated individuals. I often get asked at public lectures about pronouncements of futurists who say we’re on the verge of perpetuating human life and immortality. My answer to them—and to you—is the only certain way to achieve immortality is to do something highly meaningful with your life the short time you are here. Thank you, congratulations, and best wishes for your future.