SSI Space Manufacturing 14: Craig Venter Speaks on Synthetic Biology

J. Craig Venter (Credit: Public Library of Science)

Craig Venter
J. Craig Venter Institute

— Few things excite his imagination than trying to design people and organisms for the long-term settlement of space
— Created a bacterial cell controlled by chemically synthesized genome earlier this year
— Mapped the human genome for the first time 15 years ago
— Can now map a human genome in a couple of days with a machine that costs about $500,000
— NASA has been doing genetic selection for quite some time — astronaut selection — without really admitting it…why not make it more rigorous?
— Screen for traits that are highly compatible for space — inner ear changes that eliminate motion sickness, minimize bone loss, etc.
— If people are going to be traveling and living in space for a long period of time, might think about engineering humans for with these traits

— Every person who goes to ISS is bringing maybe 10 million bacteria, genes, etc. with him/her

Synthetic Metabiome

  • replace the thousands of microbes on and in humans preparing for long-term space flight or habitation with a defined microbial community
  • microbial community could eliminate disease organisms, methanogens, sulfur producers
  • microbial community could add cells to produce certain vitamins and proteins needed for long-term space missions.
  • eliminate future infections, tooth decay

— Can only define essential and non-essential genes based on the environment you are in
— 40 million genes discovered to date are design components for future organisms…could eventually discover 300 million genes
— try to build a robot that can make thousands to millions of genes per day
— need new tools to feed billions of new people — also we’re reaching limit of how much carbon we can put into the environment
— working on 4th generation designer fuels with carbon dioxide as the source of carbon
— Fuel from algae…a partnership with Synthetic Genomics (Venter founded company)
— could get 10 years to get to commercial quantities…needs synthetic genomics to make the algae produce fuel properly
— could use synthetic biology with algae to produce food for space exploration
— also turn waste into drinking water
— new vaccine company to use genomics to produce viable vaccines
— rapid production of vaccines — much more efficient than growing them in chicken eggs
— just at the early stages of synthetic genomics — took 15 years — what took years to do now can be done in a day — what took a day now takes a few hours


— Start looking at genetic code of people to see how to adapt them to spaceflight
— Human metobiome to understand role of body microbes in human physiology
— Synthetic genomes for food, water, renewable fuel production and recycling waste
— Synthetic genomes to increase nutrition, decrease waste products, and provide radiation protection, etc.

Q&A Session

— Synthetic genomes could really change the way NASA does its operations
— Leap from selection to engineering is a complicated one