Who could ever have imagined that a surfer working as a night clerk at Sears, Roebuck & Co. (S ) would eventually become the driving force behind the race to read the genetic code of humanity? That's the unlikely story of J. Craig Venter, a brash biologist who engineered a major leap in scientific knowledge -- and earned millions -- by masterminding efforts to probe the DNA of everything from microbes to man.
Venter might not have broken his surfing habit were it not for the Vietnam War, he says. Faced with the draft, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy and ended up as a medical corpsman patching wounds in a hospital in Da Nang. "I got a lifetime of education packed into one year," he recalls.
He came back to the U.S. energized and ambitious, zipping through college and a PhD in six years and landing at the National Institutes of Health in 1984. At the time, scientists were spending years finding individual genes. But Venter had a better idea. He quickly fished out the copies of many genes that cells make and use in the production of proteins. Then he employed a new sequencing machine to analyze the code in these genes rapidly.
Soon Venter had sequenced parts of hundreds of genes -- and became the center of a firestorm when the NIH filed patents on them. "Outrageous," fumed Nobel Laureate James Watson, co-discoverer of DNA's structure. He charged that Venter's semi-automated operation "could be run by monkeys." Venter was unrepentant. "I had three strikes against me," he recalls. "I had a radical idea, it worked, and I was an outsider."
Venter then became even more of a maverick. He snared venture capital bucks to set up his own nonprofit research institute, linked to a company called Human Genome Science (HGSI ) that would get first crack at the genes he found. There he pioneered a technique dubbed "whole genome shotgun sequencing" to read all the DNA in an organism quickly, not just the 2% in the genes themselves. The NIH rejected Venter's grant application, but he went ahead anyway and in 1995 completed the first full sequence of a living organism, a microbe.
Next, Venter took aim at the biggest quarry of all, the human genome. In 1998 he teamed with toolmaker PE Corp. to set up a company named Celera Genomics (CRA ). In just three years, he proclaimed, Celera would use the shotgun approach and scores of sequencing machines to decipher humanity's entire genetic code.
It was a direct challenge to the government's well-funded Human Genome Project, which immediately stepped up its pace. Despite a face-saving joint announcement at the White House on June 26, 2000, indicating that both teams had completed a draft of the genome, Venter actually beat the taxpayer-funded project soundly. Not surprisingly, one batch of the DNA Celera sequenced came from Venter.
Like other genomics companies, Celera fell into disfavor on Wall Street when it became clear that finding genes doesn't lead directly to drugs. In early 2002, Venter was fired -- though he had already plotted his exit. Now 58, he is full of ideas, such as fashioning man-made microbes to produce hydrogen or suck carbon dioxide out of the air to combat global warming. He may have ruffled too many feathers to get the Nobel prize many scientists think he deserves. But Venter, more than any other individual, is responsible for the flood of genomic information that is expected to transform medicine and our lives.
By John Carey