Recorded: 02 Mar 2006
Well, there were lots of reasons. But the simplest at the scientific level is, how could somebody want to work in this field to characterize the human genome and not have fundamental questions about their own lives, their own evolutions. I think people that are saying that was a bad thing to do were just being hypocritical. In fact now several of them are trying to get their genome sequenced later. But the other reason was at the time everybody was afraid. And we had these huge committees that went through, how do you protect the people against the onslaught of society, of the genomes on the internet. That they will be discriminated against for employment, for health insurance, for everything in their lives. And people were afraid that people could analyze the genome and find out their innermost secrets.
So I learned in the military that there are two types of leadership; either you lead by truly leading and being out in front, or you lead by pushing other people out in front to take all the risk. I believe in the first type of leadership. You know that you have to lead and do things. So at a time when everybody was saying how scary it was, I figured that I would lead by example. And I don’t think that anybody could have been more informed about the risk and the implications than myself. So it wasn’t a complicated decision. But I was just one of the five donors.
Well, I tried to keep it quiet for a very long time. We never announced it, but when asked direct questions, we didn’t try to confuse people or be dishonest about it. You know, I was asked point blank by a Sixty Minutes camera crew. I was asked by, I think a PBS Channel show, and so I wasn’t going to lie and try to avoid it. But it was treated as major news after those shows and ended up on the front page of the New York Times. It’s extraordinary the attention that people pay to some things. But we are trying to get it to the era now—we started a half a million dollar prize to help get to sequencing a human genome for a thousand dollars. Then I joined the X Prize Foundation and now we are trying to get a ten million dollar prize to move things even faster so that you or anybody watching this, anybody in the future can have their genome sequenced and have the value and the advantages of trying to get to preventative medicine, trying to get to lower cost treatment.
Things that can really impact people’s lives. That’s what the experiment was about. It wasn’t about who first sequenced the genome—it’s trying to change the course of history, and we’re still early in that whole process, but we’re anxious to get there. In fact, I haven’t learned that much yet because we’re still in the earliest stages of learning how to interpret the human genome. Very little has happened on this front since 2000, when we announced the first sequencing of the human genome at the White House. So I’m still at the earliest stages of learning things about my own genome because we are at the earliest stages of interpreting the genetic code.
J. Craig Venter, biologist and genomic research pioneer, was born in Salt Lake City, Utah in 1946. Following military service in Vietnam, he studied biochemistry as an undergraduate at the University of California, San Diego, where he also received a Ph.D. in Physiology and Pharmacology in 1975. He joined the faculty of the Medical School of State University of New York at Buffalo in 1976, joining its affiliated Roswell Park Cancer Institute in 1982 as Professor and Associate Chief Cancer Research Scientist. Beginning in 1982, and for the next decade, Dr. Venter headed various sections of NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
In 1992 he founded The Institute for Genomic Research (known as TIGR,) where he and colleagues became the first to successfully sequence the genome of an entire organism. Dr. Venter's Celera Genomics, founded in 1998, used a strategy known as the whole genome shotgun approach to compete with the publicly-funded Human Genome Project, which served to accelerate the mapping of the whole human genome by 2000. Dr. Venter's current venture, the J. Craig Venter Institute, was formed in 2006, from the merger of several predecessor enterprises. A leader in genomic research, the J. Craig Venter Institute announced in January 2008, the largest synthetically derived DNA structure, advancing it towards its goal of creating a living cell based on an entirely synthetic genome. In September 2007, the J. Craig Venter Institute announced the sequencing of Dr. Venter's genome, the first sequencing of an individual's genome.
Among Dr. Venter's numerous awards and honors are the American Academy of Microbiology Fellow (1997), the American Chemical Society, Division of Biochemical Technology David Perlman Memorial Lectureship Award (2000), and the U.S. State Department, Secretary's Open Forum Public Service Award (2001). Dr. Venter is a member of the American Society of Human Genetics, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Society of Microbiology, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.