A scientist outside the mold

IN FOCUS

Gene researcher J. Craig Venter usually operates just beyond the cutting edge

Science

January 25, 2008|By Julie Scharper | Julie Scharper,SUN REPORTER

He raced the government to map the human genome - and tied. He deciphered the genetic code for the fruit fly, the mouse and even his pet poodle, Shadow. And he has sailed around the world, collecting water samples in order to map the genomes of aquatic organisms.

So yesterday's announcement that J. Craig Venter, 61, had reached a major benchmark in the quest to synthesize artificial life came as little surprise to those familiar with his work.

"He's a fascinating person because he doesn't fit into the typical mold of the scientist," said Aravinda Chakravarti, the director of the Center for Complex Disease Genomics at the Johns Hopkins University. "He doesn't fit in with the public's concept of a scientist or often the scientific community's concept of a scientist either."

Venter's latest accomplishment - chaining together a long string of synthetic genes to re-create a portion of the DNA of a simple bacterium - is another milestone in his storied, and controversial, career.

In 1998 Venter founded Celera Genomics, named for "celerity" or speed, and announced plans to map the human genome in three years, two years before the government-sponsored Human Genome Project was due to be completed.

Venter's challenge spurred the federally funded group to work faster and, after coming to a private agreement, the two groups announced in 2000 that they had jointly produced the first working draft of the human genome.

"He used different techniques and he challenged the large, slowly moving federal bureaucracy to speed things up," said Paul Rabinow, a professor of anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley who studies genomics issues. "That was controversial, as you can imagine. Basically he won, but they agreed under a lot of political pressure to call it a tie."

The Celera team pioneered the use of a technique called "shotgunning" to sequence DNA. After mapping the fruit fly and human genomes, they used shotgunning to decipher the DNA of the mouse, rat and Venter's dog. The process is now widely used.

In a 1999 interview with The Sun, Venter called himself the "spiritual leader" of a "world-class team" and said: "I come up with breakthrough ideas and breakthrough approaches ... only to be met by negativism and personal attacks from my so-called colleagues."

His memoir A Life Decoded: My Genome: My Life, published in October, chronicled his work on the human genome.

A Vietnam veteran who earned a doctorate in physiology and pharmacology from the University of California at San Diego, he has been married and divorced twice and is now engaged. He has one child, a son, and lives in Alexandria, Va.

Venter attracted the ire of scientists and ethicists when, while working for the National Institutes of Health, he sought to patent some of the genes his lab discovered, Rabinow said: "This was one of the first questions about who owns life. Venter made a big splash."

Critics raised the same concerns when Celera sold access to the human genome, said Jim Thomas, a research manager with the ETC Group, a technology watchdog headquartered in Ottawa. "He's trying to make money off the human genome, but it belongs to the entire human race," Thomas said.

He left Celera in 2002 after the company's focus changed to drug development. He founded several organizations that merged in October 2006 to form the Rockville-based J. Craig Venter Institute.

In 2005, he declared his intention to work on a project formerly in the realm of science fiction - synthesizing life.

Rabinow said that synthetic organisms might help doctors combat drug-resistant microbes such as MRSA, which kill tens of thousands of people in the United States every year.

"Nature shifts and changes around readily and pretty adroitly. It's a very dangerous situation," he said. "So, what Venter's doing is leading us to perhaps a better understanding for how this works and maybe giving us a platform to counter it."

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Chris Emery contributed to this article.

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