J. Craig Venter is shaking up the science establishment all over again. Four years after he raced the U.S. government in an effort to map the human genome, the biologist announced in March that he had identified 1.2 million new genes, all from about 1,200 marine microbes he collected in the Sargasso Sea. The number of known photoreceptor genes alone tripled with the discovery, and it seems to be just the beginning.
Venter’s previous genomic work was a resounding scientific, but not financial, success. He pioneered a technique of shotgun DNA sequencing via computers that helped complete the human genome five years ahead of schedule. Investors in his company, Celera Genomics, hoped for big returns from pharmaceutical companies paying to use the sequences to find new drugs, but earnings were lackluster. After the company fired Venter in 2002, he appeared to be lying low. In fact, he was very busy.
The biologist will spend about two years circling the world on his 95-foot yacht, attempting to catalogue all the planet’s marine microbes. Funding for the project comes from his own foundation, but this time, instead of competing with the government, he has teamed up with the U.S. Department of Energy. The hope is that Venter will discover microbes with novel methods of photosynthesis that might lead to new sources of energy. Meanwhile, he is trying to develop an artificial form of life into which he can insert new genes to see what they do. “It hasn’t been done yet,” he says, “but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.”