Venter: World's bio-diversity scarcely understood

Venter: World's bio-diversity scarcely understood

Scientists have only begun to understand the "mindboggling" array of microbial species in the world, geneticist J. Craig Venter said Thursday.

While on a seafaring expedition that was part of ongoing environmental genetics work, scientist J. Craig Venter and his crew were suddenly engulfed in a sand storm -- 1,800 miles (2,880 kilometers) from the coast of Africa. The sand storm on the sea led him to begin thinking about the plethora of microbes that swirl through the globe's air, Venter said in a speech Thursday.

But before he had that thought, he and the crew had another: "We actually thought we were hallucinating, so we cut off drinking for the rest of the voyage," he said during his talk at the Bio-IT World Conference & Expo in Boston.

The sand was real, and being caught in an airborne storm at sea that was made of something so much heavier than bacteria or viruses made him wonder what genomics discoveries could be found in the air, so his Sorcerer II Expedition was expanded to include air samples as well as sea samples.

Venter, who is one the world's leading -- and most controversial -- geneticists, last year founded the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland, which combined three existing nonprofit scientific organizations he had started. Sorcerer II operates out of the institute. He also founded Celera Genomics as a commercial venture to sequence the human genome, leaving the company after a spate with other management in 2000.

With the human genome sequenced, Venter turned his focus to "environmental genomics," which involves sequencing the genomes of microbes. Sorcerer II researchers collect milliliters of water from around the globe and filtering the water through increasingly smaller filters until bacteria and viruses are all that is left. The microbes are then frozen and taken back to Rockville for genomic sequencing. Each milliliter contains 1 million bacteria and 10 million viruses, though few are pathogens that can make humans or other creatures sick.

"The next time you're swimming in the ocean and you swallow a mouthful of sea water, think of the number of genomes you've just ingested," he said.

The planet's seas carry in them an enormous abundance of microbes, with clearly distinct populations of organisms in different geographic regions. Venter's team has sequenced 8.3 million marine microbe genomes, with a robust 1.9 million new genes and 1,800 new species coming from the Sargasso Sea, he said, adding that more up-to-date figures are forthcoming. Using some of the world's most powerful computers for sequencing work, Venter Institute researchers are continually adding more data to the findings.

"The diversity of species is mindblowing," Venter said, noting that scientists have scarcely begun to understand just how many microbial species exist.

Apart from giving Venter an excuse to partake in sailing, which is one of his favorite activities, the environmental genomics work he and his team are doing has wide-ranging applications, and is leading to the development of synthetic genomics, he said. His group has been approached about the possibility of using their work to re-create extinct species, but rejected that idea because he doesn't believe that is a good way to support species diversity, Venter said.

Instead, he said the research will lead to dramatic changes in the petrochemical industry, as well as the creation of new food sources, and possibly energy sources as well. Scientists also are figuring out how microbes can be used to control carbon dioxide levels, which are a key factor in global warming.

In the nearer term, the work of Sorcerer II will be used to "assess the true safety of off-shore drilling," as well as to monitor drinking water and to track ballast water from tanker ships that drain water from other parts of the world into harbors. "We're moving species around and we're not thinking about that in a very intelligent fashion," Venter said.

The research also will be used to monitor the health of the world's ocean reefs and to track emerging viruses. Venter Institute scientists are already in contact with scientists in Southeast Asia, from which many viruses emerge.

"As we sail around the world, our goal is to leave a lot of exciting new data and knowledge in our wake," he said.

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