In 1998 J. Craig Venter burst into the public consciousness with the audacious announcement that his new company, Celera Genomics, would mount a rival effort to the $3 billion 15-year Human Genome Project spearheaded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Venter said his private company would beat the public effort by four years, finishing in 2001 instead of 2005. After a bitter rivalry, the two projects completed rough drafts of the genome in the summer of 2000. President Bill Clinton presided over a ceremony that declared the race a tie. Venter was criticized by the public project scientists, led by Francis Collins, for planning to profit from the data. Venter later released the information free. Since leaving Celera in 2002, the former California surfer and Vietnam War medic founded the J. Craig Venter Science Foundation, which funds two projects he is working on—one to create new life in a laboratory, the other to catalog as many genes as possible during an around-the-world ocean voyage on his yacht.
Photograph by Amy Eckert
Were you good at science when you were young?
V: I was bored with school. I refused to take spelling tests because I thought it was really stupid to memorize words only to regurgitate them on a spelling test. As a result, I can’t spell very well today. Then what I saw in Vietnam as a medic was a direct correlation: When I had specific knowledge, I could save people’s lives. I was planning on going into medicine, but when I got to the University of California, I started making major science breakthroughs and published my first paper as an undergraduate. I just found it so thrilling and intellectually rewarding that I gave up on the idea of medicine and stayed in science.
What were your motives for sequencing the genome?
V: I learned of the genome project in the mid-1980s, well after my lab was the first in the world to do automated DNA sequencing. The two obviously went together extremely well. It was just such a big grandiose idea that I fell in love with it immediately. I came under a lot of attack very, very early. A lot of people would have given up.
You left the NIH in 1991 after James Watson, then the director of the Human Genome Project, rejected your ideas for speeding up the sequencing of the genome. What if Watson had embraced your work?
V: I probably would have stayed. I really liked being at the NIH. One of the ironies here is that had Watson not been so vehement in his attacks, it wouldn’t have made the press. When I was being attacked by Watson, other people read these stories and got very excited about it and saw the commercial possibilities. I think I pushed him over the edge when I went after the human genome; that was his birthright.
Historically, how big a deal was sequencing the human genome? Was it a Watson-Crick moment?
V: Our publications and the announcement at the White House will be viewed historically as very important moments, but it’s the utilization of that information that will hopefully lead to scientific breakthroughs that will be the important thing. The techniques that were developed to do the Haemophilus genome and the Drosophila genome were the scientific breakthroughs technologically. [Haemophilus influenzae is a bacterium, the first organism to have its entire genome sequenced, which Venter completed in 1995; Drosophila is the common fruit fly, whose genome Venter sequenced as a warm-up to sequencing the human genome.] There have been very few instant cures and very few instant insights. Most scientists are overwhelmed by the data and don’t use it. Yet I think of the early stages of my own career, spending 10 years to find one protein or one gene. And now any student today can do a computer search in minutes. It’s a revolution.
Before your round-the-world trip on your yacht, you did ocean sampling in the Sargasso Sea, off Bermuda.
V: We found at least 1,800 new species and 1.2 million new genes. This doubles the number of all other genes known on the planet. And this was in the Sargasso Sea alone. Wait until we release the data from the global sampling expedition.
But isn’t this just a bunch of data until you analyze it? Scientists still don’t know what to do with the human genome.
V: We collect the data first, and then it will be analyzed. It took Darwin years to analyze his Beagle data before he understood what it meant.
Now you’re on mission to sequence all the genes of every microbe. Why?
V: First off, we’re just trying to get a clear idea of what’s out there. We know less than 1 percent of the biological world. We just published 1.2 million genes from a small sample of ocean water from the Sargasso Sea. The next study that we’re doing right now, we’re probably going to have between 10 million and 20 million genes. These are massive increases over what’s been known. It may be an opportunity to do the first-ever classification system for the genes of planet Earth.
Why are you being criticized for the ocean-sampling project?
V: Most of the ocean is claimed by one or more countries. A lot of politics is building up around this thing. So now we’re evil because we’re putting data in the public domain. A group of people who are following everything we do is putting out a lot of false information. You go on to some Web sites, and they say we’re trying to patent everything.