HISTORY OF MEDICINE

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J. Craig Venter (1946 to present)

 

 

John Craig Venter (born October 14, 1946) is an American biologist and entrepreneur and is known for being one of the first to sequence the human genome and for creating the first cell with a synthetic genome. Venter founded Celera Genomics, The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR) and the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI), and is now working at JCVI to create synthetic biological organisms. The British magazine New Statesman listed Craig Venter at 14th in the list of “The World’s 50 Most Influential Figures 2010”.

 

Venter was born in Salt Lake City, Utah. In his youth, he did not take his education seriously, preferring to spend his time on the water in boats or surfing. According to his biography, A Life Decoded, he was said to never be a terribly engaged student, having Cs and Ds on his eighth-grade report cards. Venter himself recognized his own ADHD behavior in his adolescence, and later found ADHD-linked genes in his own DNA.

 

Venter graduated from Mills High School and began his college career at a community college, College of San Mateo in California. He received his B.S. degree in biochemistry in 1972, and his Ph.D. degree in physiology and pharmacology in 1975, both from the University of California, San Diego. At UCSD, he studied under biochemist Nathan O. Kaplan. After working as an associate professor, and later as full professor, at the State University of New York at Buffalo, he joined the National Institutes of Health in 1984.

 

While at the NIH, Venter learned of a technique for rapidly identifying all of the mRNAs present in a cell and began to use it to identify human brain genes. The short cDNA sequence fragments discovered by this method are called expressed sequence tags (ESTs), a name coined by Anthony Kerlavage at The Institute for Genomic Research. The NIH initially led an effort to patent these gene fragments, in which Venter coincidentally and controversially became involved. The NIH later withdrew the patent applications, following public outcry. Subsequent court cases declared that ESTs were not directly patentable.

 

Venter was passionate about the power of genomics to radically transform healthcare. Venter believed that shotgun sequencing was the fastest and most effective way to get useful human genome data. The method was controversial, however, since some geneticists felt it would not be accurate enough for a genome as complicated as that of humans. Frustrated with what Venter viewed as the slow pace of progress in the Human Genome project, and unable to get funds for his ideas, he sought funding from the private sector to fund Celera Genomics. The goal of the company was to sequence the entire human genome and release it into the public domain for non-commercial use in much less time and for much less cost than the public human genome project. The company planned to monetize their work by creating a value-added database of genomic data to which users could subscribe for a fee. The goal consequently put pressure on the public genome program and spurred several groups to redouble their efforts to produce the full sequence. DNA from five demographically different individuals was used by Celera to generate the sequence of the human genome; one of the individuals was Venter himself. In 2000, Venter and Francis Collins of the National Institutes of Health and U.S. Public Genome Project jointly made the announcement of the mapping of the human genome, a full three years ahead of the expected end of the Public Genome Program.

 

The announcement was made along with US President Bill Clinton, and U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair. Venter and Collins thus shared an award for “Biography of the Year” from A&E Network. On the 15 February 2001, the Human Genome Project consortium published the first Human Genome in the journal Nature, and was followed, one day later, by a Celera publication in Science. Despite some claims that shotgun sequencing was in some ways less accurate than the clone-by-clone method chosen by the Human Genome Project, the technique became widely accepted by the scientific community and is still the de facto standard used today.

 

Although Celera was originally set to sequence a composite of DNA samples, partway through the sequencing, Venter switched the samples for his own DNA. After contributing to the Human Genome, and its release into the public domain, Venter was fired by Celera in early 2002. According to his biography, Venter was ready to leave Celera, and was fired due to conflict with the main investor, Tony White, that had existed since day one of the project. Venter writes that his main goal was always to accelerate science and thereby discovery, and he only sought help from the corporate world when he couldn’t find funding in the public sector.

 

The Global Ocean Sampling Expedition (GOS) is an ocean exploration genome project with the goal of assessing the genetic diversity in marine microbial communities and to understand their role in nature’s fundamental processes. Begun as a Sargasso Sea pilot sampling project in August 2003, Craig Venter announced the full Expedition on 4 March 2004. The project, which used Craig Venter’s personal yacht, Sorcerer II, started in Halifax, Canada, circumnavigated the globe and returned to the U.S. in January 2006.

 

Venter is currently the president of the J. Craig Venter Institute, which conducts research in synthetic biology. In June 2005, he co-founded Synthetic Genomics, a firm dedicated to using modified microorganisms to produce clean fuels and biochemicals. In July 2009, ExxonMobil announced a $600 million collaboration with Synthetic Genomics to research and develop next-generation biofuels.

 

In May 2010, a team of scientists led by Venter became the first to successfully create what was described as “synthetic life”. This was done by synthesizing a very long DNA molecule containing an entire bacterium genome, and introducing this into another cell, analogous to the accomplishment of Eckard Wimmer’s group, who synthesized and ligated an RNA virus genome and “booted” it in cell lysate. The single-celled organism contains four “watermarks” written into its DNA to identify it as synthetic and to help trace its descendants. The watermarks include:

 

  1. Code table for entire alphabet with punctuations
  2. Names of 46 contributing scientists
  3. Three quotations
  4. The web address for the cell.

 

On September 4, 2007, a team led by Sam Levy published the first complete (six-billion-letter) genome of an individual human-Venter’s own DNA sequence. Some of the sequences in Venter’s genome are associated with wet earwax, increased risk of antisocial behavior, Alzheimer’s and cardiovascular diseases. This publication was especially interesting since it contained a diploid instead of a haploid genome and shows promise for personalized medicine via genotyping. This genome, dubbed HuRef by Levy and others, was a landmark accomplishment and as of mid-2010 is probably the highest quality personal genome sequence yet completed.

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