Gene Master

How a private researcher won the race to decode the human genome


Craig Venter is not a man who is inclined to underestimate himself. But then why should he? He beat the government's science bureaucrats in the race to decode the human genome. Fueled by $3 billion in taxpayer money, the federal Human Genome Project had waddled along for years until Mr. Venter, in 1998, managed to come up with private funding for a $300 million parallel research effort, Celera Genomics. He announced that his team would sequence the genome—mapping the three billion DNA base-pairs that make up all 26,000 or so human genes (plus tracking long stretches of currently unknown function)—three years ahead of the government's schedule and at a tenth of the cost. And he did.

One of the five genomes that Mr. Venter's team sequenced was his own. A Life Decoded is a kind of second sequencing, in prose instead of proteins this time around. Mr. Venter not only traces the events of his life but also maps the future of biomedicine as he sees it.

Mr. Venter's early life was hardly that of a science prodigy. While growing up in a town just south of San Francisco, he proved to be a mediocre student. His eighth-grade report card (reproduced in "A Life Decoded") shows an average grade hovering between C- and D+. "Some parents may, perhaps, find some hope on seeing similar report cards from their children," he wryly notes.

After barely managing to graduate, he moved in the early 1960s to Southern California, bodysurfing at Newport Beach during the day and working nights at a Sears, Roebuck warehouse. Then an Army draft notice arrived; Mr. Venter enlisted in the Navy. "It never dawned on me that I might end up in Vietnam." Trained as a hospital corpsman, he was shipped to Da Nang, the site of a vast U.S. air base not far from North Vietnam. It was, Mr. Venter says, a "university of death." He treated hundreds of young soldiers who had been grievously wounded and mutilated. This experience, Mr. Venter says, gave him focus: He wanted to save lives. So after the Navy, he started over by going to community college intending to go on to medical school. But when he got to the University of California, San Diego, he was diverted by a brilliant mentor, the biochemist Nathan Kaplan, who saw Mr. Venter's raw talent for science and persuaded him to go into research.

And so he did, concentrating on the working of adrenaline hormone receptors for his doctorate at UCSD and then continuing his research at the School of Medicine at the State University of New York in Buffalo throughout the 1970s. Ultimately, though, he felt trapped by "a weak academic culture" in Buffalo. "I was still driven by my experience in Da Nang, and I wanted to accomplish so much more." Ironically, given his future run-ins with government researchers, Mr. Venter accepted a position in 1983 at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., where he would embark on a "new career in molecular biology" with a well-funded lab, he says. "The techniques and interests I picked up in Bethesda had a profound influence on the rest of my life, laying the foundation for my future interest in reading genomes. I was in scientific heaven."

It is at this point that "A Life Decoded" turns captivating, as Mr. Venter describes his transformation, over the course of a decade, from an NIH-boosting molecular biologist with a "suspicion that pure science would not thrive in a commercial setting" to a genome-obsessed researcher who decided to take chance on the commercial sector.

Mr. Venter's prose reaches a high pitch when he describes the tension and excitement of racing to the genome finish line. But the writing also gets excited whenever discussing a certain J. Craig Venter's heroic struggle against self-serving, risk-averse government bureaucrats on one side and, on the other, short-sighted businessmen whose greed would force him into "endless battles" with his "supposed backers" once he left the NIH in 1992.

In Mr. Venter's telling, James Watson, co-discoverer of the double helix structure of DNA and the first head of the government's Human Genome Project, is a sneaky apparatchik. The author claims that Francis Collins, who now runs the project, is a self-righteous and backstabbing manipulator who tried to block Mr. Venter's progress at every turn, threatening to cut the funding of any researcher who cooperated with him. One of Mr. Venter's sweetest revenges comes when the government sequencing team that had so publicly predicted he would fail eventually adopted his methods. Specifically, they implemented whole genome shotgun sequencing, which fragments a genome into pieces that can be rapidly sequenced and then put into proper order by sophisticated computer programs. This technique speeded up sequencing 20-fold.

Mr. Venter's privately funded enterprise, Celera Genomics, began sequencing the genome in September 1999 and completed it nine months later, three years ahead of the government's schedule, as promised. The leaders of the public genome effort panicked when they realized that Mr. Venter would win. A compromise was offered. If he agreed to a draw, then Mr. Venter and the government team would together announce the completion of the human genome at a White House ceremony. This historic event, presided over by President Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair via video link, took place on June 26, 2000.

Throughout "A Life Decoded," Mr. Venter inserts brief, boxed descriptions of what was found in his own genome, under headings such as "My Asthma and My Genes" and "My Waistline and Diabetes." Surprisingly, he does not have the dopamine receptor gene variant (DRD4) associated with novelty-seeking and risk-taking. He apparently does have genes that raise his risk for late-onset Alzheimer's disease. By publicly unveiling his entire genome, Mr. Venter wants to counter privacy concerns about genetic information; genes are just information that can help people understand themselves better, he says, and can be used to guide the prevention and treatment of disease.

Since winning the genome race, Mr. Venter has not slowed down. He has combined his love of sailing with an ambitious effort to sample the genetic makeup of the microbes that inhabit the oceans. In 2007, his team announced that they had discovered in seawater samples more than 400 new microbes and six million new genes, doubling the number known to science. In addition, Mr. Venter has established a biotech company, Synthetic Genomics, which aims to create designer organisms to produce fuel and clean up pollution. Mr. Venter wants to bring humanity to "a new phase of evolution, to the day when one DNA-based species can sit down at a computer to design another."

That day is drawing closer. In June, Mr. Venter announced that his team had successfully transplanted the genome from one bacteria species to another. Mr. Venter is widely expected to reveal before long that an artificial genome made of genes constructed at a lab bench has been successfully installed in a microbe.

Readers may cock a skeptical eyebrow at Mr. Venter's admiring account of his life so far—perhaps one day he will discover the gene for braggadocio—but "A Life Decoded" is invaluable as a behind-the-scenes account of biomedical research and scientific infighting during a momentous time.

Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His most recent book, Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution, is available from Prometheus Books. This article orginally appeared in the Wall Street Journal.