By Alexandra Foran, NSRDEC Public AffairsAugust 22, 2012
Dr. J. Craig Venter came to the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center August 20 to discuss with the workforce his past and current genomic research. This research includes genomic-driven solutions which may address needs on a global scale, including innovative energy sources, next-generation vaccines, and new food and nutritional products.
Venter described some of his studies that were done with troops in a desert environment involving changes in gene structures. "There are approximately 4 million genes in the oral cavity," said Venter, and they normally change in a desert climate after the Soldiers have been there for about thirty days. Venter acknowledged that you can discover where people come from by looking at their microbiome, which changes their physiology and changes their response to the environment depending on which microbes are present.
"The other thing that I think is going to be really critical for what you guys are going to do for the Soldiers is understanding the microbiome," said Venter. "The microbiome is a key part of all our internal environments. It doesn't matter how many times you wash your hands, we all have about 200 trillion microbes within our bodies. You can't get rid of them. Even taking massive antibiotic doses will kill off some but not most. So in addition to our 22,000 human genes you can have another 10 million or so genes associated with each of these."
Since Venter's team first discovered relating to this in 2003, they have faced challenges and questions regarding what microbes do. Venter elaborated that there are many questions about how microbes affect our physiology and our environment.
According to Venter, when a person has had too much alcohol, changes occur in the microbiome. He says that the effect that alcohol has on the liver is not a direct impact, but by changing the microbiome, bacterial toxins are formed that will inevitably damage the liver.
"We can actually change the microbiome by adding back a unique set of microbes that individuals can take in a simple capsule," said Venter, which could prevent alcohol's effects on the liver.
Venter and his team have been working on accelerating the process of genome sequencing since 1995. They recently conducted an experiment where they sequenced on the order of 10,000 complete microbial genomes in a two-hour period. The results change the quality of information that can be acquired instantaneously about our environment which is important because changes in the microbiome are being associated with more and more diseases.
"Life is a DNA software system," says Venter. "We've been developing software to design DNA software…we are working on new generations of completely synthetic cells." These ideas can be applied to food and medical science as well as energy conversion in general.
For example, Venter discussed the meningitis B vaccine that his team worked on, "which is important to the military, is very effective and works on all strains of meningitis B."
Genomics work is in various stages at Venter's companies, J. Craig Venter Institute and Synthetic Genomics Inc. Venter's teams can physically design software and then send it at the speed of light through electromagnetic waves.
"Right now we can make almost any protein… this is going to advance quite rapidly. I think we can make synthetic cells in a cell-free system…in that case you can send virtually any type of biology anywhere in the world by electromagnetic rays."
Venter discussed the problems with many new drug-resistant bacteria that antibiotics do not work on, but he believes a whole new range of synthetic bacteriophage could be created to work on any specific species, "…and [we can] have a whole catalogue of these we can download from the internet or email this new potential treatment."
The future of foods and medicines are starting to be combined. This new category of medical foods, explains Venter, could be created by using certain lipids in food. One might be able to prevent asthma or allergic responses; anti-inflammatory molecules can be designed in food. "We can design unique proteins that have never existed before," and create proteins that have the right texture, the appropriate amino acid balance and/or unique amino acid content.
"You might want to, in the future, control the exact microbiome of the Warfighters. Certainly if you look at the space station it's a microbiological zoo -- every person that goes up there brings 200 trillion microbes with them. You're changing the environment every time someone new shows up."
In short, Venter explained the overall concept in this manner: "We're sending biology at the speed of light and converting it at the other end back to biology… real-life is far ahead of what you saw in science-fiction…you can actually download the vaccine from the internet, because it's digital information."
"I look out in the room today and I see all of our problem solvers," said Dr. Jack Obusek, NSRDEC director, as he concluded the morning seminar. "You solve problems for Soldiers and small units, you know what they have to do, the challenges they face, the environments they work in and what we have today is a tremendous opportunity. Dr. Venter visiting here shows us a completely different way to think about these problems and how we can go develop solutions."
Venter later toured the installation and spoke with various experts in fields such as combat rations, biotechnology, waste reduction, genomics, power and energy, and human performance.
"Part of the reason for being here is that I like to go directly to people that have problems they're trying to solve and then see if our technology can help you solve those problems," said Venter. "This is a field that is limited more by imagination now than anything else."
The innovative thinking at NSRDEC continues and may evolve again with a new way of thinking and new ideas brought to the base by Dr. Venter.