When the name J. Craig Venter, Ph.D., appears in print the words “genome” and “maverick” are seldom far behind. Venter, one of the prime movers behind the sequencing of the human genome, has made a career out of doing things his way. “I have learned,” he told an audience in the Fitkin Amphitheater “to ignore people’s advice on many occasions.”
Indeed, Venter has not only rejected conventional wisdom, but often run counter to the scientific establishment. His independence has worked for him: even before he set out to sequence the human genome he discovered hundreds of new genes, decoded the first full genome of a living organism (the bacterium H. influenzae) and deciphered the genome of the fruit fly.
It was his impatience with what he considered the plodding methods of the National Human Genome Research Institute (under the leadership of Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D. ’74, FW ’84) that led him into a race to sequence the genome. Venter had developed methods that he believed would be faster and cheaper. Yet the National Institutes of Health (NIH) denied his early requests for funding because it was thought they wouldn’t work. “The NIH is not very good at funding new ideas,” Venter said, “but when an idea is established, they are extremely good at funding it.”
Venter came to Yale in April to deliver the 54th annual keynote lecture to the Associates of the Cushing/ Whitney Medical Library. He also spoke at grand rounds for the Department of Internal Medicine and attended a lunch with about 20 medical students.
What, he was asked, were his future plans?
The scientific community has been waiting for this shoe to drop. In January Venter left Celera Genomics, the company he founded in 1998, because of a disagreement over business strategy. The company chose to pursue drug development, considering that a more profitable pursuit than subscriptions for its genome data.
While at Yale, Venter had little to say about his future plans. Not one to steal his own thunder, he saved his announcement for an interview he gave The New York Times during his stay in New Haven. But he offered a hint to medical students. “One of the many things I’ll be spending a little time on is trying to deal with the social and ethical issues of sequencing the human genome,” he said.
During the next few days Venter would twice grace the pages of the Times, first with the revelation that Celera’s decoding of the genome was based on a sample of his own DNA. A few days later came the news that Venter plans to write his autobiography and start two not-for-profit institutes to explore issues such as genetic discrimination and the genetics of race and to develop clean energy alternatives possibly by developing or discovering new microbes that can convert carbon dioxide into hydrogen.
In his keynote address at the Historical Library, Venter traced the history of genomic sequencing and his role in it. Applying the power of new computers and algorithms, Venter and colleagues at The Institute for Genomic Research sequenced the H. influenzae genome in 1995. The project was a challenge to the NIH, which was also working to sequence the genes of the bacterium. “We thought we could sequence the genome in a year at about a tenth of the cost of current projects,” Venter said, adding that his group did apply for federal funding only to be turned down. “What we were doing,” he recalled NIH officials telling him, “was absolutely impossible and could never work.”
After sequencing a few more small organisms, such as other bacteria and the fruit fly, Venter tackled the human genome. The NIH had already begun its sequencing project, but Venter believed his methods and tools—supercomputers, expressed sequence tags, mathematical algorithms and shotgun splicing—could do it faster. The race was on.
Ultimately the two teams realized the value of working together and in February 2001, in a tentative and at times testy collaboration, they published their results simultaneously in the pages of Science and Nature.
For his last appearance at the medical school at grand rounds, Venter discussed the genome’s impact on medicine. “Within 10 years,” he told a resident, “the medicine you practice will be based on knowing the genetic code of your patients. This information can give individuals power and more control over their own lives. If you know what is likely to affect you, you can do something about it early enough to make a difference.”