J. Craig Venter on Collaboration at Celera
  J. Craig Venter     Biography    
Recorded: 02 Mar 2006

There were two key turning points in my career and I think scientifically. One was doing the Haemophilus genome, the first genome in history from a living species. Then going up several orders of magnitude and scale to do Drosophila. After Drosophila, human was obvious. Everything else was obvious. After Haemophilus these next stages were at least obvious in terms of expanding the microbial world. Intellectually it was obvious to go to Drosophila and human but we didn’t have the tools at the time, the mathematical tools or computers to do it. Gerry took part with his team at the earliest stages of building Celera. I have to say that the first couple of years there was just the best scientific period of my life. We had the choice of the best scientists in the world. They all wanted to work there. They wanted to be part of this historic project and it’s something that only worked on a team basis. So Ham Smith was in charge of making the best DNA libraries. He knew that if he failed the whole project would fail. Gene Myers and Granger Sutton and their whole team had to build a whole new algorithm to do something everybody said was impossible. If they failed the whole thing would fail. Mark Adams was setting up the sequencing lab. If he failed everything would fail.

Across the board it was a team of people from different disciplines, different skill sets, all excited about being part of something much bigger than themselves, and they were dedicated to changing the history of science. And they did it despite all these attacks and criticisms. They just kept going because they all believed in what they were doing and that it would work. And fortunately it did. There were some rough points. A lot of times when the machine didn’t work. We also had to build the largest computer in the world in 1999 to assemble all this data. So all these things had to come together. The computer technicians, the algorithm scientists, the molecular biologists, the bioinformaticians, the sequencing technicians, the repair people. It was a complex operation that brought science together at a scale never done before in biology. It was a very exciting period. Everybody felt tremendous esprit de corps. They felt they were really part of something and I don’t think it’s been covered. I think you talk to any of these people, it was the highlight of their lives. That it went down from there in terms of what individual scientists can do on their own versus what you can do in a well-organized team. So it was a very exciting historic period.

I think I was an enemy because we had new ideas. I mean it had been very simple. If somebody comes to you with a totally absurd idea – you know, they claim they’ve done cold fusion or something – it gets dismissed pretty rapidly, right? Even though all these people were saying our ideas were bad, they wouldn’t have been a threat to them if they didn’t believe in their hearts that what we were doing would work. We all make these individual choices. We separate the intellect from our emotion or we don’t. So many people in the genome project were governed more by emotion than by intellect. Because they’ve all switched now to using the methods we developed. So obviously intellectually, intellect ultimately won out because it worked. But you know that’s been the history of science. It’s not unique to the genome. It’s not unique to anything. Individuals believe in what they are doing. They strike out with new areas, with new ideas. Most of them fail. People flop badly. I think people took it seriously because in fact my team had sequenced the first genome in history. I mean ESTs really did work and they revolutionized the field. And I think even though a lot of people—you know, Ham Smith; it’s a wonderful historic statement. When I came back and told him that we were going to leave TIGR to start Celera to sequence the human genome. He said, “I don’t think it will work, but I’m going with you.” So he believed in the team, believed in our ability to pull it off, and he helped make it happen.

Well, I’ve known Gene Myers for years. In fact, I started the genome sequencing conference that started back in the 1980s in Washington and then became Hilton Head and then Miami. So this is where we would review annually all the progress in genomics. He would make various presentations about—he was the co-developer of the BLAST algorithm that we all still use today. It was a major contribution. And I just liked his independent thinking. So after I decided to take the risk and form Celera, he was one of the first people I contacted to see if he wanted to come and try and help build a whole new algorithm.

Well, I think he was frustrated because, you know, he wrote a paper, in fact, based on our work with Haemophilus and trying to extend it and saying—in fact, the last line in our paper, we tried to say this is the method that the human genome will be sequenced with, back in ’95. I think it’s pretty extraordinary that it was only three years later that we undertook the project to sequence the human genome with that method. It was a very short time period in history. It’s not like it took decades for the new ideas to sink in in people’s minds. I was aware of Gene’s work and the paper that he had written and how he got attacked. And everybody told him it would never work. So I gave him the chance to come and help form a team. So he and Granger Sutton built the team that built this new algorithm that really, I think, changed the history of genomics on a large scale. It was a big risk for him. He had a stable, secure position at the University of Arizona. He was happy living there. He had just gotten married. I said, you know, leave your position, come here and let’s do this adventure. And he took the risk to do it! There’s very few people that do that. That really, you know, just leave the security of their positions, what they were doing on something that had a chance, a big chance, of being a colossus failure. All the different pieces did come together.

You know, Mark Adams left NIH to go with me and played a big role in scaling up EST sequencing. There were various people on the informatics side that helped build—you know, I think we really started the field of bioinformatics because we used computers to analyze the EST data and the genome data before anybody else was really thinking about it. I think the most important colleague I’ve ever had is Ham Smith. And he’s been now a friend and a colleague, well, since that period. He and I met at an ethics conference in Spain in 1994 and I asked him if he was willing to help advise my new institute and he got very excited and we even talked about, at that time, maybe sequencing Haemophilus and the idea of doing this, you know, with developing the whole genome shotgun method all developed out of those conversations with Ham. He eventually joined the institute and then followed me to Celera. But there’s, you know, people that—I’ve had very loyal colleagues. Some of them that are still employed here started at my lab in the late 1980s and they run the sequencing center. They, you know, are heavily involved in things. Some people have been working for me for fifteen or more years. And I think that’s what made the difference. It wasn’t just me. I had ideas, but it was the implementation of the ideas that was equally important and for that I was totally dependent on my colleagues.

I don’t think there’s a lot of luck involved, although there’s always the element of chance in everything we do. We were going out into the unknown so we could have easily hit complications that we didn’t anticipate that would have derailed what we were doing. You know, there’s a saying that luck favors the prepared mind. That’s part of The Wanderings of a Biochemist story, the Fritz Lipman story of, it’s obvious when you see one set of data—you know, we always made our decisions based on the reality of the data, not by some fantasy. So maybe for a while I was one of the few people that believed what we were doing at Celera would absolutely work. I never wavered on that. Other people went up and down. And it was my job to keep everybody focused and believing in what they were doing, because I believed in them. I had some of the smartest colleagues in the world. I mean Gene Myers and Granger Sutton are true geniuses. Ham Smith, I think historically will be one of the most important figures in molecular biology. Here he made discoveries early, restriction enzymes that led to this whole field instead of retiring or, you know—he’s had a very active science career. He’s come back and work—he works every day at the lab bench and has had just huge contributions.

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.