Thursday, November 1, 2007

Gene Master

First Individual Diploid Human Genome Published

A Life Decoded by J Craig Venter
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."

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