Juggling Genetics
Matthew Herper

J Craig Venter secured his place in the scientific firmament seven years ago when he nearly outran the U.S. government in the race to map the human genome. He’s aiming impossibly high again, making big headlines for transplanting the entire genome of one species of bacterium into another. It was hailed by several scientists as a step toward producing the first man-made organism that, according to Venter, could as soon as five years from now help solve global warming by reducing our reliance on fossil fuels.

Venter’s transplanting trick was another wow moment at his 500-person gene machine, which goes by an easy-to-remember name, the J. Craig Venter Institute. Its $200 million in assets is funded in part by gains from his biotech business ventures. Venter, 60, is one of the two most mentioned researchers in a recent textbook on recombinant DNA.

Being the Bono of genetics allows him to fund audacious ideas that might otherwise be starved of support, but here’s the thing to know about Venter: He warps the reality field around genetic research through sheer force of ego and showmanship. Lots of researchers are already crafting synthetic organisms by modifying the genes of existing germs, but Venter is going for an entirely man-made organism. It’s a huge, stupendous goal, but he’s also using the smallest and most fragile bacteria around. Lots of researchers have been decoding the genes of rare microbes, but only Venter did it by scooping up gallons of seawater from the deck of his 100-foot yacht. Venter was the first to precisely map an entire human genome. It was put up on the Internet in May and will be published soon. Guess whose genome it is? Venter’s. His autobiography is due out in October. It’s called A Life Decoded: My Genome: My Life.

Venter’s Great Man act might frustrate those who like their science with a dose of modesty or circumspection. Nobel laureate Hamilton Smith does much of the hard work at Venter’s institute. Venter has publicly credited Smith, but have you heard of him? Venter “makes good copy, I guess,” says Mark Adams, a Case Western Reserve geneticist who was one of Venter’s lieutenants for a decade.

That big ego has left in its wake chaos and bitter feelings. At Venter’s former genetics lab, the not-for-profit Institute for Genomic Research, managers battled over control of grant money and equipment while his 23-year marriage to renowned genomic scientist Claire Fraser (who ran the place) fell apart. Of the 28 highest-ranking scientists, 23 departed, mostly for better jobs. What’s left of the institution (referred to everywhere as TIGR, like the predator) has been consumed by his new Venter Institute.

Venter declined comment for this story, but Venter Institute spokeswoman Heather Kowalski (also his fianc??e) says that scientists switch jobs all the time. Venter, she says, “is a strong personality, someone who has strong opinions and someone who pursues his ideas with steadfast determination. While it’s clear he has his detractors, he’s also got plenty of admirers.”

Venter founded TIGR in 1992 after leaving the National Institutes of Health for complicated reasons that included a front-page controversy over patenting genes. At the NIH Venter was busily discovering brain genes, and the NIH wanted to patent them even before knowing what the genes did. W. Richard McCombie, a lab mate of Venter’s who is now a Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory professor, remembers Venter walking into the lab after the NIH decision and saying, “We’re going to be rich and powerful beyond our imagination.” (Another lab mate also remembers the quote, but Kowalski disputes it as a selective memory from a disgruntled ex-employee.) Almost immediately, a slew of critics railed against privatizing genes. Venter has since come out against broad gene patents.

The NIH ended up quashing the gene-patenting idea, but Venter’s work brought him to the attention of Wallace Steinberg, a venture capitalist who wanted Venter’s know-how for a startup he had in mind. Venter had another idea. He would license new genes to Steinberg’s firm but only via an institute Steinberg would bankroll: TIGR. Venter and Fraser left for the new institute in Rockville, Md. There they sequenced the very first genomes, of two different bacteria, in 1995.

Three years later Venter jumped at the chance for the big job, sequencing the entire human genome, at the biotech Celera. He took a select group of TIGR’s best and brightest with him, creating hurt feelings among those left behind.

TIGR researchers had worked in lockstep behind Venter. But Fraser nurtured a more independent approach, akin to that of a university faculty. TIGR thrived and developed a reputation for understanding the genes of scary germs. It sequenced the malaria genome and the anthrax strain that was unleashed in Washington, D.C. and New York in 2001. Work began on a big project to understand potential flu pandemic threats.

Even as Venter was triumphing over the government’s gene-mappers in 2000, stock in Celera plummeted as it dawned on investors that the company would have trouble turning DNA data into cash. Venter was fired in 2002 in a dispute over Celera’s future. He returned to the TIGR campus with big plans.

He created three new not-for-profits. One would focus on genomics; a second would do synthetic biology for energy production; and the third would serve as a funding mechanism for the two new organizations and TIGR. Gene-sequencing machines, the workhorses at TIGR, were now to be shared by all at a new 40,000-square-foot facility.

Venter and Fraser began to tussle over the direction of TIGR, and they separated in 2004. That September Venter went to the boards of TIGR and the other not-for-profits with a plan to merge them into a single J. Craig Venter Institute. Virtually all 28 of TIGR’s faculty threatened to quit. “I for one was not willing to work at a place called the J. Craig Venter Institute,” says Steven Salzberg, a TIGR researcher who has since left for the University of Maryland. The other institutes did merge, but TIGR was left separate and withering.

Venter and Fraser divorced in February 2005, but they continued to work closely together. That June Fraser married geneticist Stephen B. Liggett and changed her last name to Fraser-Liggett. By 2006 Venter was dating Kowalski, who had been the publicist at Celera.

In 2006 Venter finally got his wish to absorb TIGR into the J. Craig Venter Institute. Fraser-Liggett fought behind the scenes to slow down the move, arguing that the tumult was driving away her faculty. “If too many more people leave, then the stench of death will start to permeate this organization,” Fraser-Liggett wrote in a memo to the TIGR faculty.

In April Fraser-Liggett left the Venter Institute to start a new genomics research organization at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. Ten of her TIGR colleagues are following as full-time faculty members, and most of their staff are coming, too. This institute will use new gene-sequencing machines to study how infectious germs behave and evolve inside the body. It will employ 100 people and will open this fall.