Biography 39: John Craig Venter (1946 - )
J. Craig Venter began the race to sequence the human genome when he unexpectedly announced to a room full of genome researchers that they could just quit now, thank you, because his company would finish the job. People who like him say he never filters his thoughts and he shoots from the hip. Others have been less diplomatic, calling him an egomaniac, an idiot, and a shallow man.
John Craig Venter was born on October 14, 1946 in Salt Lake City, the youngest son of an excommunicated Mormon who drank too much, smoked too much, and died at 59. The family moved to a working class suburb south of San Francisco and lived in a house next to the train tracks. Venter enjoyed playing chicken with the trains and surfing the chilly waves in nearby Half Moon Bay.
In high school, Venter excelled in shop class. After graduating, he moved to Newport Beach to surf warmer waves, and then enlisted in the Navy during the Vietnam War. Detecting more intelligence in him than his high school record indicated, the Navy trained him as a medical corpsman and shipped him to the Da Nang hospital.
"I was there during the Tet offensive," he said. "I got introduced to medicine in probably the toughest way possible. I just got fascinated with the lack of knowledge we had and had a desire to do something more."
After finishing his tour - which included two stints in the brig for disobeying orders - Venter went to the University of California, San Diego to become a doctor. He was deflected from that path by a class with Gordon Sato and a project with Nate Kaplan. "I got so fascinated with science," he said, "I decided to heck with medical school."
Venter breezed through his undergraduate and graduate schooling in six years, worked at the State University of New York, Buffalo, and was recruited to the National Institutes of Health in 1984.
In the early 1990s, Venter developed the EST method of finding genes, and promoted it as cheaper and faster than the Human Genome Project that was just getting started. Project administrators disagreed, but in the meantime, the NIH decided to patent Venter's gene fragments. The Patent Office eventually rejected the patents, but the applications sparked an international controversy over patenting genes whose functions were still unknown. The Human Genome Project's director, James Watson, opposed patenting and quit. Venter left NIH to form his own non-profit institute, The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR).
Venter continued EST work at TIGR, but also began thinking about sequencing entire genomes. Again, he came up with a quicker and faster method: whole genome shotgun sequencing. He applied for an NIH grant to use the method on Hemophilus influenzae, but started the project before the funding decision was returned. When the genome was nearly complete, NIH rejected his proposal saying the method would not work.
As he turned his focus to the human genome, Venter left TIGR and started the for-profit company Celera, a division of PE Biosystems, the company that makes the latest and greatest sequencing machines. Using these machines, and the world's largest civilian supercomputer, Venter finished assembling the human genome in just three years.
Venter lives with his wife - Claire Fraser, president and director of TIGR - outside Washington, D.C. where he keeps his tablesaws in the garage, safely away from his new Porsche. Venter relaxes by sailing his 80 foot yacht, The Sorcerer, across the Atlantic (www.tigr.org/journey/).
Commentators on the genome sequence (Human Genome Project). Top: William Clinton, Ewan Birney, John Sulston. Bottom: Jim Watson, Craig Venter.
The leaders of the private and public genome projects, Craig Venter and Francis Collins.
Origins of the EST project.
Craig Venter talks about techniques and the new biology.
Using the Project's data to find genetic variations among people.
Initial objections to the Human Genome Project.
Francis Collins Craig Venter represent the federally-funded and the commercial efforts of the Human Genome Project.
Craig Venter, leader of the private effort at Celera Genomics, speaks about his company's reliance on the public data for reassembly of the Celera sequence.
Craig Venter talks about advancing science and medicine.
Francis Collins, Director of the National Human Genome Research Institute.