J. Craig Venter: The Hero of the Genome Project Talks About DNA Discovery and How to Add Zing to Science Education
It's little wonder that J. Craig Venter is regarded as one of the leading scientists of the 21st century.
A biologist par excellence, he is most noted for his leading role as head of the private effort in the first sequencing and analysis of the human genome -- which was a milestone in the famous Human Genome Project, the worldwide research effort more than 15 years ago to identify all the approximately 20,000-25,000 genes in human DNA. He and his team went on to sequence his own full diploid human genome in 2007.
Later, he and his research team created the first bacterial cell with a synthetic genome (a genome made artificially by chemical synthesis).
He is Founder, President and Chairman of the J. Craig Venter Institute, a not for profit basic science research institute; and Co-Founder, Chairman, CEO, of Synthetic Genomics, Inc., a privately held company. At these organizations teams are focused on a variety of projects and programs including: synthetic genomic research and the application of these advances to develop new biofuels, vaccines and food and nutritional products; continued analysis of the human genome including the human microbiome, and discovering and understanding genetic diversity in the world's oceans.
Craig is quick to tell you how genome research and discovery in a "DNA-driven world" will continue to impact our lives in major ways -- from food, water and medicines to sustainable energy sources. "The future of our society relies in key ways on our understanding of biology and the molecules of life -- DNA," says Craig. "While the last century could be termed the nuclear age, I propose that this century will be fundamentally shaped by advances in biology, and the field of genomics -- the study of the complete genetic make-up of a species."
Equally important, he says, is the necessity for citizens to be scientifically literate "in order to embrace and understand the changes that science and technology bring". To this end, science education and science professionals must begin playing a more vital and engaging role to make science more hands-on and discovery-driven -- a subject on which Craig is also quite opinionated.
"Science, if not taught properly, is a topic which can cause people to turn off their brains," he says. "I contend that science has failed to excite more people for at least two reasons: it is frequently taught poorly, often as rote memorization of complex facts and data, and it is antithetical to our visceral-driven way we live and interact with our world."
To emphasize his point, he recalls what science was like for him growing up: "As a young student I was very turned off by the forced memorization of seemingly trivial facts which were, I felt, at the expense of true understanding. Instead I was much more interested in discovering and living in my world -- I caught frogs and snakes, built boats and explored my surroundings." It would be years later first as a Naval medical corpsman during the Vietnam War and then as a student at the University of California, San Diego that he would begin to find his true niche in science.
John Craig Venter was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, and later moved with his family to a suburb south of San Francisco where he enjoyed surfing the chilly waves in nearby Half Moon Bay. After graduating, he enlisted in the Navy during the Vietnam War where he served as a medical corpsman at a hospital in Da Nang.
"There, during the Tet offensive," he said. "I got introduced to medicine in probably the toughest way possible. I just got fascinated with the lack of medical knowledge we had and had a desire to do something more."
After finishing his tour duty, he enrolled at the University of California, San Diego to become a doctor, but changed his career path in favor of science after taking a series of spirited and stimulating courses in biochemistry. "I became so fascinated with science, "I decided to heck with medical school."
From UCSD, he received his Bachelor's of Science degree in Biochemistry, and his Ph.D. in Physiology and Pharmacology. After working as an associate professor and later as a full professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo, he joined the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 1984.
At the NIH in the early 1990s, Craig isolated expressed sequence tags or ESTs and developed them as a rapid method of finding genes. He later left NIH to form his own non-profit institute, The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR) to further develop ESTs and other tools and techniques to sequence genomes. TIGR blazed a new trail in the world of genomics starting with the very first sequenced genome of a free living organism, that of Hamaephilous influenzae in 1995.
Believing that his science could help speed up the quest to sequence the human genome, he started the for-profit company Celera Genomics in 1998. Using new computational tools and supercomputing power (he and his team built the world's largest civilian supercomputer at the time), Craig and his team announced the first draft of the human genome at a ceremony at the White House in 2001.
In addition, true to Craig's keen interest in hands-on science education, JCVI is also a leader in K-12 outreach in science discovery. For example its Discover!Genomics Mobile Genomics Laboratory is noted for bringing the science of genomics to thousands of middle schoolers each year by exposing them to exciting encounters with JCVI researchers and technology. "The results have been fantastic," says Craig.
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