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banner Tuesday, 30 May, 2000, 16:15 GMT 17:15 UK
The maverick: Craig Venter
Craig Venter's company Celera Genomics has a slogan: "Speed matters - discovery can't wait." And there's no doubt that Dr Venter is a man in a hurry.

He turned the human gene mapping programme into a competitive race and, in so doing, he has become the most controversial scientist of his day.

Craig Venter: Hero or villain?
Craig Venter: Hero or villain?
But, as a boy, he did not exemplify good scholarship and at 18 he chose to devote his life to the surfing pleasures of the beaches in Southern California. Three years later in 1967, he was drafted into the Vietnam conflict.

As an orderly in the naval field hospital at Da Nang, he tended to thousands of soldiers wounded and killed during the Tet offensive. This inspired two important changes in him: a determination to become a doctor and a conviction that time should never be wasted.

"Life was so cheap in Vietnam. That is where my sense of urgency comes from," he said.

Messy and tedious

During his medical training he excelled in research rather than practice. By the 1980s, the early days of the revolution in molecular biology, he was working at the government-funded US National Institute of Health and soon realised the importance of decoding genes.

But the work was messy, tedious and agonisingly slow. So, in 1987, when he read reports of an automated decoding machine, he soon had the first one in his lab. This speeded things up - but not enough.

Then came Dr Venter's real breakthrough. He realised that he did not need to trawl the entire genome to find the active parts, because cells already use those parts naturally. He switched his attention from the DNA blueprint to the messenger molecules (called RNA) that a cell makes from that blueprint. He was then able to churn out gene sequences at unprecedented rates.

His success shocked some, most notably the co-discoverer of DNA, James Watson, who famously dismissed the relatively crude results obtained as work "any monkey" could do.

Complete genome

The criticism, and the failure to secure further public research funding, prompted Dr Venter to leave the NIH in 1992 and set up a private research institute, The Institute for Genomic Research (funded by Human Genomic Sciences).

And, in 1995, he again stunned the scientific establishment by unveiling the first, complete genome of a free-living organism, Haemophilus influenzae, a major cause of childhood ear infections and meningitis.

His greatest challenge to the establishment came in May 1998, when he announced the formation of a commercial company, Celera Genomics, to crack the entire human genetic code in just three years. At that point, the public project was three years into a 10-year programme.

The public project now expects to complete the human genome in 2003, but Dr Venter aims to finish in 2001.

Dr Venter is confident to the point of arrogance: "Is my science of a level consistent with other people who have gotten the Nobel? Yes." He is also a very wealthy user of Lear Jets and private yachts.

But what is also undeniable is that his maverick efforts in the field of human genomics have speeded up the entire process. Whether the main beneficiary of this acceleration is humanity or Craig Venter remains to be seen.

By the BBC's Mark Smith




See also:

19 Feb 00 | Sci/Tech
Gene tycoon scoops top science prize
27 Oct 99 | Sci/Tech
Human gene patents defended
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