Mapping a Genome and a Life

J. Craig Venter, the 'Bad Boy of Science,'

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For years, J. Craig Venter has been at the center of scientific and political controversies, researched solutions to the energy crisis, and sequenced his own genome. His bid to outpace the government-run genome project of the 1990s and publish the data independently earned him the nickname the "bad boy of science." In his new memoir, A Life Decoded: My Genome—My Life, Venter discusses his childhood, his stint as a medic in Vietnam, and his bumpy road into the world of science. He also shares the details of his own genome sequence. Among other things, he reveals that he's at higher risk for Alzheimer's, lower risk for becoming overweight, and higher risk for diabetes. He also has a gene that's associated with endurance, to which he partly attributes his "ability to swim long distances." He recently talked with U.S. News.

Considering the controversy surrounding the "race to the human genome," did you see this memoir as an opportunity to share your side of the story?

That was a reason, but certainly not the principal reason. It's about my life in science and how it led up to that and also how I've moved significantly beyond it. But I do feel that [the genome race] has been dramatically misrepresented in some quarters. I wanted to say it in my own words, explain my motivations as a scientist. Why did you choose to sequence your own genome?

At the time, people were said to fear having their genomes sequenced and [made public]. I decided it was not appropriate for me to ask someone else to have his or her genome sequenced and put on the Internet if I wasn't willing to do it myself. Another part of it was straight scientific curiosity. Why did you decide to include information about your own genes in your memoir?

Largely I'm trying to make clear how hard it is right now to actually interpret the human genome. All the effort was made to get the sequence, as though that was a significant endpoint. Instead, it was a race to the starting line, and all we have now is a fairly primitive level of interpreting things. What did you learn from your genome sequence?

We can get very few yes or no answers out of our genomes. While genetics influence every aspect of our existence, including behavior and personalities, there's no way to truly tell right now what's caused by our genes and what comes from the environment. You can't tell from my genetic code whether I have blue eyes or not. So it's naive to think that complex human behaviors, like risk-seeking, are driven by changes in one or two genes. What did you learn about yourself by writing your memoir?

It was wonderfully cathartic for me to get down some of my thoughts and feelings, in particular about Vietnam. I did a lot of my writing on my computer on an airplane. I had tears running down my face. I probably scared the people sitting next to me. What do you think people should take away from your experiences?

I've been told that my success has encouraged a lot of people. I've had a very unusual background in science—not the usual route of planning on being a scientist from age 3. I think my story shows that success is more about personal motivation and determination than it is about where you were born or what your economic status was. Going to a community college system and eventually to the University of California is actually open to far more people than they realize. What will be your genome's impact?

I think this genome sequence will serve as a reference for the start of individualized medicine. We hope that by next year we'll have 30 to 50 additional genomes and that eventually we'll get at least 10,000. Once we create databases of many individuals' genomes, we can start to sort out nature and nurture and give people information that can help them prevent disease. Do you envision that someday everyone will have his or her genome sequenced?

Yes. I think it will become part of standard healthcare. It's very expensive to treat chronic diseases. But by knowing what we're susceptible to, and then doing things to prevent it, we can lower healthcare costs. For example, if colon cancer is detected early—because a person knew he had a genetic risk and was having frequent exams—the surgery is relatively inexpensive and average survival is far greater than 10 years. But if it's detected after symptoms appear, average survival is less than five years, and the cost of treatment can go to hundreds of thousands of dollars. An insurance company would rather pay the $12,000 bill than the $100,000 bill. And a patient would rather have the early diagnosis and treatment than the one that comes too late.