May 24, 2005

Venter maps his own genome, takes it to the seas

You've just developed a new technique to map the human genome. You've played catch-up against a coalition of international scientists, officially ending in a draw with them to become recognized as the first to map the entire human genome. Unofficially, though, you've just spanked the international scientific community.

Now, what do you do?

If you're Craig Venter, the renegade scientist considered by some to be the most brilliant alive, you take the genome project to the seas. Using the same "shotgun method" applied to his own genes while sequencing human DNA, Venter is trolling the oceans to collect sea-life samples—and then extract their DNA.

Venter's marine expedition made a public splash last year when he published findings of samples taken from the Sargasso Sea, near Bermuda. Venter, speaking at the Museum of Science and Industry last Thursday night, said he has discovered at least a few thousand new species and 1.2 million genes. His article more than doubled the public library of genes.

Instead of looking at the ecosystems from the outside in—as a marine biologist would—Venter's team is using the shotgun method to study genetic material from the inside out. Samples of bacteria-infested water are collected and taken to a lab where they're pulverized. Then, relatively short segments of genetic code are marked. Finally, a mathematical model begins to assemble the sea of short sequences, using overlapping segments as the connecting points for the gene map.

"It's like grinding up every living thing in Chicago and running a test on it," Venter said.

It was precisely this shotgun method that Venter's firm, Celera Genomics, used to map the human genome. By contrast, the group of international scientists collaborating on Human Genome Project used a "hierarchical shotgun" method, isolating known DNA fragments and then disassembling these pieces, according to a National Institutes of Health (NIH) press release.

Venter, who worked in a lab at the NIH before leaving for private funding, has drawn the ire of some scientists, who consider him a sell-out. He used his own DNA in the project, and businessmen funded his firm. Venter insisted that he wanted the genome project to be done openly. "I asked that it be done in a not-for-profit company, but they were not of the philanthropic nature," he said.

Taking a jab at the Human Genome Project, Venter said that he tried to reach out to the government-funded scientists. "I said that one of us should map a person, the other a mouse. But my call for collaboration was met with a hostile response," he said. "They took offense when I said they should map the mouse."

Venter said that his version of the shotgun method has since become standard practice. "They modified what they were doing to use our technique but they didn't say that publicly. Now every lab in the world uses our technique," he said. "It's the best out there."

Throughout the lecture, Venter made a parallel between the nascent state of genome research and the field of electronics decades ago. "It's hard to imagine how far this will go," he said.

Besides public projects, personal genome mapping will soon be commonplace. "It's going to start in this next decade, where everyone's going to be mapping their genomes," Venter said. "That's one of the businesses Google's going to get into soon—mapping genomes."

"So soon you're going to be able to Google your genes?" asked Chris Anderson, the talk emcee and editor of Wired.

"That's right," Venter responded, adding that he foresees a public database with upwards of a billion genes.

Venter explained that synthetically created organisms could become sources of alternate power. Genetic scientists are still years away from developing this type of technology, he said, explaining that they are now only developing first principles.

Venter emphasized that genome mapping could be used for preventative medicine, and that the threats of misuse by mad scientists—or, even worse, imprudent insurance companies—are but blips on the horizon. Meanwhile, the possible medical benefits of having personal genetic maps are manifold. "I am the only person on the earth to have some degree of a semblance of an ability to do preventative medicine," Venter said without skipping a beat.

Genome mapping is giving scientists more evidence in support of evolutionary theory. "We're seeing some of the same genes," he said. "They point to common origins."

But in a question and answer session, Venter was asked if the genomes he has found point to only one common origin. Venter said that it is too early to tell if there is more than one origin of human life. This leaves the door open for the possibility that scientists could draw a conclusion that would add another dimension to the political maelstrom about natural selection.

Commenting on the public debate about evolution, Venter said that Americans are grossly under-informed about science. "Evolution is one of those things that whether people believe in it or not, it still keeps happening," he said.