Venter, John Craig (1946- )

views updated

Venter, John Craig (1946- )

American molecular biologist

John Craig Venter, who until January 2002 was the President and Chief Executive Officer of Celera Genomics, is one of the central figures in the Human Genome Project. Venter cofounded Celera in 1998, and he directed its research and operations while he and the company's other scientists completed a draft of the human genome. Using a fast sequencing technique, Venter and his colleagues were able to sequence the human genome, and the genomes of other organisms, including the bacterium Haemophilus infuenzae,.

Venter was born in Salt Lake City, Utah. After high school he seemed destined for a career as a surfer rather than as a molecular biologist. But a tour of duty in Vietnam as a hospital corpsman precipitated a change in the direction of his life. He returned from Vietnam and entered university, earning a doctorate in physiology and pharmacology from the University of California at San Diego. After graduation he took a research position at the National Institutes of Health. While at NIH, Venter became frustrated at the then slow pace of identifying and sequencing genes. He began to utilize a technology that decodes only a portion of the DNA from normal copies of genes made by living cells. These partial transcripts, called expressed sequence tags, could then be used to identify the gene-coding regions on the DNA from which they came. The result was to speed up the identification of genes. Hundreds of genes could be discovered in only weeks using the method.

Supported by venture capital, Venter started a nonprofit company called The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR ) in the mid-1990s. TIGR produced thousands of the expressed sequence tag probes to the human genome.

Venter's success and technical insight attracted the interest of PE Biosystems, makers of automated DNA sequencers. With financial and equipment backing from PE Biosystems, Venter left TIGR and formed a private for-profit company, Celera (meaning 'swift' in Latin). The aim was to decode the human genome faster than the government effort that was underway. Celera commenced operations in May 1998.

Another of Venter's accomplishments was to use a nontraditional approach to quickly sequence DNA. At that time, DNA was typically sequenced by dividing it into several large pieces and then decoding each piece. Venter devised the socalled shotgun method, in which a genome was blown apart into many small bits and then to sequence them without regard to their position. Following sequencing, supercomputer power would reassemble the bits of sequence into the intact genome sequence. The technique, which was extremely controversial, was tried first on the genome of the fruit fly Drosophila. In only a year the fruit fly genome sequence was obtained. The sequencing of the genome of the bacterium H. influenzae followed this.

Although the privatization of human genome sequence data remains highly controversial, Venter's accomplishments are considerable, both technically and as a force within the scientific community to spur genome sequencing.

See also DNA (Deoxyribonucleic acid); DNA hybridization; Economic uses and benefits of microorganisms; Genetic code; Genetic identification of microorganisms; Genetic mapping; Genetic regulation of eukaryotic cells; Genetic regulation of prokaryotic cells; Genotype and phenotype; Immunogenetics; Molecular biology and molecular genetics