J. Craig Venter on Competition & Cooperation In Genomics
  J. Craig Venter     Biography    
Recorded: 02 Mar 2006

There were very few people doing anything. I think that was one of the sad parts scientifically. It involved very people in the scientific community. Very few got excited about genomics. And only a small number of labs really tried to do things and get involved. But I’d say early on it started out extremely cooperative. I have tremendous respect for Sydney Brenner. We were trying to work cooperatively with him. It wasn’t the competitive element. Nancy Wexler had put together a tremendous consortium on Huntington’s disease. In fact, they were very nervous because we had now techniques to try and sequence these regions very quickly. She wanted to push any method to help find the gene, but some of the scientists involved wanted to use mapping and they were afraid sequencing was going to take over their area.

But it started out very cooperative, you know. I think the human geneticist used to be in big battles and contests over who is going to discover changes associated with the diseases. And I think that sort of competitive, combative atmosphere was, I think, brought in by the genetics community. I think that the biochemistry and physiology areas that I was in before, and neurophysiology, were much more cooperative. I mean there’s always competition. You always want to do better, but it wasn’t so vicious that you were trying to defeat another lab. You were just trying to make breakthroughs first.

Well, there should have been total cooperation. We tried to install cooperation from the beginning, but I think by then—in science people try to maneuver to get control over budgets and there had never been such a large budget in the field of genetics. We’re trying to go over mapping and sequencing the human genome. And I think once these pathways were sort of established that people were going down, and some labs had huge money commitments, nobody wanted to change. They didn’t want to consider a new technology. So I think the competition was much more political. It certainly wasn’t scientific. I think it’s sad for science that it wasn’t cooperative from the beginning. But we certainly had the intention of trying to do that and various times along the way. I think it’s just because it got played out in the press. The press likes to make things controversial. And some of the scientists went out of their way to help.

Well, between ’92 and ’95 when I published the first genome in history—I mean it was a short period of time. Things were happening at an extraordinary rate. So people went from criticizing the EST method to—when they heard about my new enterprise, the new not for profit institute and that we were going to do human ESTs on a large scale—then the same people that were criticizing doing it in the first place then started criticizing that they couldn’t instantly have the data we were generating, even though the same people refused to fund it. So, you know, this field has been full of hypocrisy. But you know, human nature is that way and so I don’t think it’s unique to science. But it created a lot of problems. Human Genome Science was under totally independent management. I didn’t want to run a company so I left that up to the investors and they brought in – after Human Genome Sciences was started – they brought in Bill Haseltine to run that company. He tried to set it up more as a competition with my institute because he didn’t like having to give me seventy million dollars. I think as the simple solution and he saw how powerful the technique was. I mean he is a very bright guy and he saw the implications in science and tried to build them, but he knew for him to make money, he had to try and block me from publishing the data. I had a commitment for forming the institute that I had the freedom to publish my data. So it created a huge controversy that played out in the press. But I think it had a positive value. In fact, I think all the press and the controversy and race – it brought the science to the attention of the public very broadly. Otherwise I don’t think people would have even heard of the human genome. Now it’s referenced all the time. You see that people understood. Even if you don’t understand the slightest bit of science.

People understand tennis matches. They understand what looks like competition and that’s how things were built. But it was a complex period for me because I was getting attacked by some of the same scientists at NIH and the genome center for doing what they said I shouldn’t do in the first place and now they wanted the data. I think it was just anyway that some people could attack what I was doing they took that advantage because they were threatened by it. I knew that this method and the data we were generating was going to move forward treatments for disease; the understanding of biology, the understanding of our genome, the understanding of evolution. And there’s no question it’s had just a huge impact. It was very clear to me and so I was able to ignore all the politics. I mean it got intense at times, you know. Nobody likes to be attacked all the time. But, you know, I believed in what I was doing and I had just wonderful colleagues working with me that also believed in what we were doing.

Competition is always healthy. I mean it only became—if the competition was truly on the science, it would have been extremely healthy. The fact that it was more of a political and media competition than a science one—I think the science got lost in some of it. Of course, it moved things forward by years. So by definition it’s healthy. I think humans, we all perform better if we don’t exist in a vacuum. We see somebody else doing something similar and the natural response is well, I’m smarter, I’m better; I want to do it smarter and better than that person. That happens every day whether it’s when people are driving down the highway, or in sports. I mean we just watched the Olympics. I mean I watched the Olympics. It’s always fantastic watching the best people in the world in competition. And it’s that competition that drives people to levels that they would never achieve on their own.

Well, what was the point of getting the genome? You know, people treated it as though it was an end in itself. I always said if there was a race, it was a race to the starting line. The period we are now in we are trying to interpret the genome and have it impact medicine and understand evolution. When you get into a big enough government project, people look at that as an end in itself. And I think that was the tragedy. We wanted to change the way medicine was practiced. I’ve had cancer in my family. I’ve served in Vietnam and dealt with some of the biggest tragedies in medicine. I wanted to do something to change that and there was no reason—why wait ten or fifteen years if you can change it in a year. If everybody believed what they were saying about the impact of the human genome sequencing you would think they would be dedicated to finding the fastest, most efficient way to do it so it could start affecting people’s lives immediately. And I think I’m most proud of, you know, we took something that would have taken at least another decade, if ever. Historically, some of the people involved had indicated there wasn’t even half the money in the budget to finish the genome. So we helped them to get more money. They did it by claiming they had an enemy but that helps with Congress. The sad thing is it was the U.S. government competing with a new start-up company. The essence that the whole U.S. economy is built on that. But we didn’t sequence the human genome because it was a commercial venture; we sequenced the human genome in Celera because that was the only option open to us. The government would not change what they funded. They would not fund new ideas. They had their favorite people, they were giving them money no matter what they did. And so my only opportunity to sequence the human genome was to take part in the creation of Celera. This whole controversy of whether it was public or private money, you know, that was nonsense. That was an excuse to attack what we were doing. So here we used private investor money. We sequenced the human genome and we gave it to the public for free a decade sooner than they would have it, no matter how many billions of dollars they put in with tax payer money. We did everything we promised we would do. We made it available to the scientific community. So it wasn’t public versus private. It was one idea of how to do the science versus a large government bureaucracy.

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.