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Getting into J. Craig Venter’s Genes

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What could possibly be next for manic bio-radical J. Craig Venter? Venter’s entire personal genome will be published as a reference databank, to be available for all researchers, later this year. Where will the maverick researcher, once introduced in New Yorker with the opening line. “J. Craig Venter is an asshole,” head now?

Venter has been an object of hate and derision among fellow genome researchers, who call him arrogant and focused on the commercial aspects of his research, and claim he “bogarts” his data. He petitioned for permission to use his “shotgun” DNA-reading method, which he developed to identify fragments of working genes while employed by the National Institutes of Health, for genome-sequencing, but was turned down by the government. So he founded the TIGR Institute, which became the first to sequence the entire genome of a living organism, the bacterium Haemophilus influenzae, which causes meningitis.

In the late 1990s, Venter and a rival research group headed by Francis Collins both published human genomic sequences derived from an amalgam of individuals. These two teams “achieved the feat of reading three billion letters of DNA code, the entire human genetic recipe, triggering endless discussions of the extraordinary implications of having access to all the instructions required to make every protein that builds and runs a body.” (Roger Highfield, Daily Telegraph Magazine, May 27, 2006)

The “successful” human genome sequencing, however, was less than helpful in interpreting the meaning of this DNA code. For one thing, the combination of five sources in the DNA that was sequenced means both teams ended up with a recipe more goulash than human. As Nobel laureate Sir John Sulston admitted, “We were just a bunch of phonies.”

Now Venter proposes to publish the entire genome of a single individual — himself — in a databank available to all DNA researchers. Knowing the sequence does not, as yet, allow reading one’s DNA like a book. The six billion “letters” of Venter’s sequence are not organized into words yet, let alone the sentences and paragraphs that would allow us to identify the effects of all these genes. Nevertheless, Venter has learned a few things by sequencing his own DNA; for example, he now takes drugs to forestall heart disease after finding a gene sequence associated with heart problems.

Venter sees a future in which “personal genomics” will contribute to long healthy life for the average person. To that end, he has offered a $10 million prize to the first person to develop a way to sequence a genome at a cost of $1,000 or less.

In the meantime, having succeeded in reading DNA, Venter has no qualms about what comes next: writing it. Venter and his team have already launched a project to create life by building a custom DNA sequence for a microbe. Challenged to answer if this isn’t “playing God,” Venter replies with a grin, “We aren’t playing.”

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