Craig Venter: At the Helm of the Genetic Revolution
Perry, Patrick, The Saturday Evening Post
In the galaxy of genetic discovery, Dr. Craig Venter is a bright star whose pioneering spirit has set the pace in the race to reveal mankind's genetic makeup.
As we enter a new millennium, a revolution in science and medicine is taking place. We are on the doorstep to the future of biology and medicine. And genetics holds the key. Today, leading geneticists from around the world are scrambling to decode the entire human genome--the blueprint for humanity. In the process, scientists are writing the first chapter in a new human understanding of the process of life.
In the final laps of the race to reveal humanity's genetic blueprint, the iconoclastic gene hunter Dr. Craig Venter remains firmly in the lead.
Dr. Venter has been challenging the scientific establishment and rattling the world of molecular science since the early 1990s. While Venter's candor may not endear him to his contemporaries, they cannot argue with his unparalleled achievements.
Dr. Venter is an unlikely success story in the hallowed halls of science. After graduating from high school, he pursued the life of a beach bum, surfing and sailing until drafted into the Navy and sent to Vietnam. At 21, Venter was stationed at the Naval Hospital in Danang, Vietnam. Tending to the critically wounded, he learned a lesson that shaped his future outlook--life is short and every day counts. Returning from Vietnam, Venter enrolled in medical school to become a doctor and work in Third World hospitals. But after finishing his coursework, he realized that his passion lay in medical research.
The young scientist joined the National Institutes of Health in 1984, working on gene expression in the central nervous system. But during the early days of the molecular revolution, discovering genes was a painstaking process, typically taking researchers years to locate and decode a single gene.
Enter computer technology. While reading the journal Nature, Dr. Venter learned about a new machine that could decode genes rapidly and automatically. He met with the machine's creator, later introducing the first automatic gene sequencer, or decoder, to the NIH in 1986. But when he couldn't get the necessary funding for his project, Dr. Venter left the NIH to join the private sector in 1992, founding The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR) to continue his ambitious study.
Armed with even faster equipment, Dr. Venter completed gene maps with unprecedented speed. Using a rapid method of decoding gene sequences at TIGR, Dr. Venter and fellow scientists discovered and published one half of all the human genes that have been sequenced. Later, Dr. Venter left TIGR to form Celera in a joint partnership with biotechnology firm Perkins-Elmer.
One of the most cited biologists in the world, Dr. Venter has set the pace for human genome sequencing. The Post spoke with him in his office in Rockville, Maryland.
Q: Much is written about genetics and the genome project, but its implications are hard to grasp. Recently, for example, you announced the completion of the genetic makeup of the fruit fly, or drosophila. Why is this accomplishment considered important ?
A: We are genetically closely related to fruit flies. Basically, every human disease gene that has been characterized has a counterpart in fruit flies. The fruit fly is also the first organism that has been completely genetically mapped with a central nervous system. Mapping this DNA sequence opens the door to a better understanding of the human genome.
Q: The media have depicted the challenge to sequence the human genome, for good or for bad, as a race between private enterprise and government-funded projects. Your challenge certainly stepped up the process at the government and private levels. Is your prediction that you will have assembled the entire human genome by 2001 still on target?
A: It's at least on target and possibly ahead of that target. …