Former Celera scientist to form foundations

Venter hopes to educate public on genetics, solve environmental problems

May 01, 2002|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

When J. Craig Venter was ousted from the Rockville company he created to decode the human genome, scientists doubted it would be the last anybody would hear from the maverick geneticist.

Yesterday, they were proved right. Three months after he left the spotlight, the 55-year-old scientist leapt back in, announcing he would use the more than $100 million he earned at Celera Genomics and previous ventures to educate the public on the possibilities - and potential dangers - of genetic advances. He also hopes to devise genetic solutions to environmental problems such as global warming.

"Genomic science has the potential to revolutionize our lives," said Venter in a statement. However, he added, "new treatments for disease, new food and energy sources are at risk without better public understanding of this new science."

To that end, Venter said he would create a pair of think tanks associated with the Institute for Genomic Research, a not-for-profit research laboratory in Rockville run by his wife, geneticist Claire Fraser.

One of the organizations is the Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives, which Venter hopes will develop new sources of energy and solve problems such as global warming using biology.

The concept, which friends say has been on Venter's mind for some time, is not as odd as it might sound. Microbes, for example, are already used to clean up toxic oil spills.

"You know how Craig is, he's visionary, he's always looking way ahead from what most people consider possible," said Hamilton O. Smith, a Nobel Prize-winning biologist whom Venter recruited to Celera.

The other foundation Venter is creating will be known as the TIGR Center for the Advancement of Genomics, or TCAG (which also happen to be the first letters of the four chemicals used to spell out the genetic code).

This think tank will focus on educating the public and legislators about issues such as genetic discrimination and race. The center initially will lobby for support of stem cell research.

"He's sincerely concerned about that," says Victor A. McKusick, a Johns Hopkins geneticist who will serve on the board of trustees of one of the new foundations.

But scientists say the need for TCAG isn't clear, pointing out that several organizations, including the National Institutes of Health, devote significant money to genetic ethical and educational issues.

Last week, Venter stirred up a little ethical debate of his own when he revealed in a television interview that his DNA was the primary material used by Celera to sequence the human genome, an admission that some ethicists and scientists felt was inappropriate. They criticized him because the sequenced genome was intended to be anonymous and universal.

It's unclear whether Venter, a polarizing figure in the scientific world whose ego is considered as large as his talent, will be able to draw top scientists and thinkers to the new foundations.

Those who know him best are betting he will.

"It's typical Craig Venter," said Smith. "He's not one to stay out of the limelight."

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