‘Because I was a scientist trying to move the human genome forward, I was called Hitler. The cost was a loss of innocence.’
MULTI-MILLIONAIRE J. CRAIG VENTER TALKS TO KATE FILLION ABOUT FLUNKING OUT OF SCHOOL, AMBITION, AND BEATING THE U.S. GOVERNMENT
In his new autobiography, A Life Decoded, maverick scientist J. Craig Venter recounts the acrimonious and highly political race to sequence the human genome, which pitted his privately funded team against the government-financed Human Genome Project. Last month, his eponymous not-for-profit institute published the only individual human genome ever to be decoded: Venter’s.
QIn layman’s terms, what is a genome and why is decoding it so important?
A: A genome is any species’ complete collection of genetic information. By understanding our genome we can understand our evolution in a precise fashion, understand what changed. More importantly, it allows us to understand not only the genetic basis of diseases and human traits but the molecular basis of all diseases. It’s the fundamental basis for the future of all medical science.
Q: Is having that information currently useful to the average person?
A: It will become more and more valuable over the next five to 10 years, as we get better at interpreting. It was one challenge, being able to read the six billion letters [of genetic code] accurately, it’s another thing trying to interpret the genome. And trying to do that just with a single genome is of limited value, other than it being a very important starting point. Over the next decade, our team would
like to do 10,000 human genomes to really try to get a handle on what’s genetic, what’s environmental, across a wide range of human traits. Hopefully all the information will be in the public domain and in the scientific literature, creating a whole new field of information that’s accessible to everyone. For an individual, probably the most pertinent information will be about future disease risks, such as cardiac disease, which you can change your lifestyle to help prevent. Most physicians are not trained in genomics, so you might be the one to be educating your family doctor, which is certainly what’s happening more and more, as individuals become highly educated about things pertinent to [their health].
Q: Enough about genes for a moment. How did your environment shape you as a scientist?
A: It’s hard to know the real answer, but I speculate that because I was not interested in school, I didn’t have curiosity driven out of me, so I’ve maintained what you might describe as a childlike curiosity about life. I had an unusual transition into science: I hated school and did poorly, and it wasn’t until after serving in Vietnam that I was motivated to go back and start my education over, at the age of 22. The stereotype of the Vietnam veteran of being a disgruntled person who’s unable to go on in life, unfortunately that did happen to many, but it had an equally positive influence on many. For me, it created a philosophy of living every day as though it were your last; live larger and do things that you believe in.
Q: What do you think you would have wound up doing had you not served in Vietnam?
A: It’s so hard to know. Obviously, I have a survivor personality, an ambitious personality, but our lives take strange, torturous routes based on chance and happenstance. [Before serving as a medical corpsman] my goal was to become a champion surfer. But Vietnam changed me so profoundly, it took me from growing up in a naive, protected part of the world—the San Francisco Bay area—to being a young man of 20, thrust into having to deal with death and trying to help save people. It was such a dramatic change that it’s hard to go back to the mindset I had before, to think where I would’ve ended up.
Q: Do you still surf?
A: On occasion. I have three surfboards.
My skill set is very different than it was when I was 20! I’m nowhere near as graceful.
Q: In the competition between the U.S. government-financed consortium and your pri„ vately funded effort at Celera to be the first to o complete the human genome, there was a very -personal nature to the attacks. [Venter left ¡i Celera in 2002.] You say that you always wanted e> the right to publish your findings and make z them freely available—as indeed you have with g your own genome. Why has this idea persisted a. that you intended to hoard genomic informae> tion and use it for profit? “
A: I think it made a good story, number £ one. A large number of either government S employees or people paid by the govern£ ment were very threatened, they thought a they were going to lose their multi-billiondollar budgets. There are groups of people that like the closer-to-the-truth story, of a small team defeating a huge government effort, but there’s probably an equal number that like to buy into the notion that this was their government versus evil capitalism. I think it was actually very sad to have the U.S. government and major programs in the U.K. and elsewhere trying to attack a small startup biotech company because it was competing with them. It’s not good for science, it’s not good for society.
Q: I thought you didn’t set out to compete, but initially proposed co-operation: that the government consortium would decode the mouse genome and y our group would, for much less money, decode the human genome.
A: Or even co-operate on the human genome. The really sad thing is that we couldn’t co-operate and get it done even faster and better, and move the science forward. But to the people who were part of the larger bureaucratic effort, it was emotional: they were going to be the ones to do human, and they didn’t want co-operation or competition, the suggestion was offensive to them. There was continual rejection of the new ideas that we were putting forward, despite their success. My team did the first three [non-human] genomes in history, using technologies that were radical, that changed things from taking 10 years to a few months. Yet there was such a massive bureaucracy for the Human Genome Project, they couldn’t change direction, it was like a giant barge going down a river where they couldn’t possibly turn around.
Q: Do you think if you’d volunteered to do the mouse genome, instead of the human one, that there would have been any problem?
A: Maybe this is where I’m equally guilty: ever since the idea first emerged, I wanted to be part of decoding the human genome. [In the end] as soon as Celera did human, we did mouse right after, but perhaps if the sequencing company that was putting up the money for me to do human had been willing to do the same test project with mouse... We probably could have done mouse then turned around and done human and still been first. That would’ve been a much more clever strategy.
Q: You just talked about being first, but as recently as last month the New York Times referred to you as the loser of the race to decode the genome. Who actually won?
A: The public, because we now have this information sooner. In a way all the scientists won, but they all lost as well, because we have to have winners and losers in our society, versus “science got moved forward faster because there was a competition.” And
what we just published, for the first time describing an individual human, moves [the field of inquiry] forward substantially and far exceeds the quality and completeness of what was done in 2003. No one yet has a complete human genome, 100 per cent accurate sequence. Each version keeps getting better. It’s a moving target.
Q: Why do you think this notion persists that you’re in it for the money, when it’s a matter of fact that you’ve donated a lot of what you made at Celera to funding science at your notfor-profit institute?
A: Maybe people that have accomplished less with their lives are trying to understand and put into context what I’m doing and maybe it gives them more comfort if they can dismiss it by saying, “He’s doing this for profit.” Also, these ideas exist in the press. Clearly not all reporters carry objectivity into their work, and it persists out there that I’m a billionaire.
Q: Whereas you’re merely a millionaire?
A: Being a millionaire is not what it used to be! I think if money were my goal, I would’ve approached things very differently and I wouldn’t constantly be walking away from large amounts.
Q: What were the personal costs of the race to decode the human genome?
A Well, it was a very stressful period, but to me, the cost was more a loss of innocence about how highend science is conducted. I’d like to still maintain a naive view, that science is the only field whose goal is the absolute pursuit of truth about the world around us, and that scientific facts should win out above all other things. But because I was a scientist trying to move the human genome forward, faster, I was called Hitler. This was the first time the biological community ever had a multibillion-dollar budget dedicated to one thing, and it was led by groups of people who had no experience dealing with those budgets. They had a lot they could’ve learned from the business community about how to conduct themselves and how to bring in new ideas constantly rather than to construct a very rigid bureaucratic footprint. The state of science funding is not good, as exhibited by all the major breakthroughs that my [privately funded] team has had. For a small team to have all those is pretty stunning, and we should be asking, “Why is this not happening throughout the scientific community?” In my experience, time after time the government refused to fund new ideas, but once the ideas were established, they were willing to pour out the money in a follow-on fashion.
Q: One of the criticisms that’s consistently levelled at you is that you’re motivated by vanity. Are you concerned that writing a memoir fans those flames?
A: I thought that’s what autobiographies are supposed to be about: the person that wrote them. Anybody who becomes a public figure will have a given percentage of detractors just for being successful. My best way to answer critics is by constantly moving forward in science and trying to make more breakthroughs that have an impact on the world.
Q: Most people, including me, get their information about science and scientific discoveries from non-scientific media. How can we know whom to trust?
A: We should certainly be cautious and realize that we live in a very complex world, and any time there’s an overly simplistic interpretation of something, it’s probably
'For me, Vietnam created a philosophy of living every day as though it were your last; live larger, do the things you believe in’
wrong. I think it’s critical for more scientists to work to explain to the public what they’re doing-not only with taxpayers’ money, but what it means for society—and trying to help [promote] scientific literacy. We are in a society that, by nature of what we’ve done with the environment and the expansion of the population and industrialization, is 100 per cent dependent on science. If people don’t thoroughly understand it, they’re going to be abdicating all their decision-making abilities to those who do. M
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