J. Craig Venter on Early Involvement In Genomics
  J. Craig Venter     Biography    
Recorded: 02 Mar 2006

I became very interested with the suggestion from Charles DeLisi that we consider sequencing the human genome. So this was mid 1980s and I had just finished cloning the first neurotransmitter receptor gene from the human brain. It took a long, long time to get the sequence. It took about a year to get only a thousand letters, and it took ten years before that to get enough protein to get the sequence to clone it. So when it took me ten years for one gene, I thought the idea of getting all the human genes even over fifteen to twenty years was just a fantastic scientific idea. As I said it was trying to go from spending a decade characterizing one gene. I wanted to study evolution, so the thought of having all the genes to look at the evolution of these neurotransmitter receptor families and the relationship to others was very key.

I also liked the big picture. I like, you know, looking at a city from a helicopter. Not just from standing at the bottom of the street of a building. You get very different views. So wanting to understand the broader view of life, it just became an idea that I was very excited about. In fact it wasn’t until 1987 when I got the very first automated DNA sequencer in my lab at NIH. It was actually March of 1987.

Later that year we published the first paper of the first gene sequence by automated DNA sequencing that I began to think that I actually had something personally to contribute to the genome project. I had new methods that would work. I was one of the few non-geneticists. I trained as a biochemist and a physiologist. I was much more interested in evolution and understanding the big picture of control of the human body than I was in just understanding one genetic disease or another, which I think was a motivation for a lot of geneticists to come into the project.

Well, 1985 was the year when I first considered getting involved, because that’s when I heard the first discussions. There was nothing going on. It was just all talk. It was rhetoric. It was an idea floating around. There was no science going on. People had no idea how it would get done, where it would get done, where the money would come from. It was just an idea in 1985. I really credit Charles DeLisi with the origin of that idea.

I went to the first one sponsored by the NIH where Jim Wynngaarden, the NIH director, started to want to get to the next stage of really thinking—I think it was 1987 when the first one was. Really talking about how would the genome get done. It was right before NIH was going to set up an office for genome research and try to move things forward. But it was still discussion. Nobody at that meeting had any idea. They didn’t even know the size of the human genome. How many base pairs. Everybody was using manual sequencing that Sanger had created. I was the only one in the world that had a working automated DNA sequencer based on the work out of Applied Biosystems from Lee Hood’s discovery.

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.