Craig Venter: "We are Biological Machines, Driven by Software"

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Scientist and entrepreneur Craig Venter made headlines in 2000 when he was one of the first to sequence the human genome.
Now, he’s announced another big step: the creation of synthetic life in a laboratory – a bacterium with a cooked-up, man-made genetic code.

He says the breakthrough could eventually lead to tailor-made organisms and big benefits in medicine, energy and beyond. Speaking with On Point today, he was asked about the philosophical significance of his team’s creation. Here's what he said:

It certainly changed my view of the definition of life, and how dynamic the cells are, and that we are biological machines driven by software. Obviously the simple bacteria we’re dealing with are several orders of magnitude simpler than our own complex selves, but by changing the software and getting instant changes to convert one cell species into another just shows how dynamic life is. And understanding that we are software-driven – DNA is the software of life – I think has certain implications as we try to understand human disease, human evolution, et cetera.

Venter was also asked if genetically engineered bacteria could someday terraform the surface of Mars to make the planet habitable. Sure, he said, and they might also pave the way for further exploration of space:

We are in a bacterial universe. There’s been questions from some people at NASA; could we design microbes that would enable long-term spaceflight by regenerating oxygen or destroying waste products such as carbon dioxide. So, I think this is one of those intriguing areas, perhaps like the early electronics industry, where we have some basic tools, and we’re limited more by our imaginations right now, and I think there will be some very exciting solutions, that new young scientists come up with in the future.

This program aired on May 25, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.