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Craig Venter: mixing science, business and headlines

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Usually, when scientists announce some new discovery in a journal, they don’t get summoned to testify before Congress the next week.

But when the scientist is Craig Venter and the discovery is another step toward making synthetic life, the headlines and the hyperbole are both a given.

Venter has made his life’s work mixing science and business, both to the irritation and sometimes grudging admiration of his colleagues.

He attracts headlines with his flamboyant approach to doing science -- from challenging the stodgy Human Genome Project to using his own personal yacht to combine a round-the-world cruise with a gene-fishing expedition.

Much of the controversy comes from Venter’s entrepreneurial approach.

He abandoned his altruistic colleagues at the National Institutes of Health to start The Institute for Genomic Research in 1992 -- along with his then-wife and fellow genetics expert Claire Fraser -- and then made a fortune founding profitable companies.

“Fundamentally, I was driven out of necessity to do it,” Venter said in a recent interview.

“We couldn’t get the money from the government for our new idea to sequence the human genome.”

Venter’s new idea was using what is called whole genome shotgun sequencing -- busting up the DNA code into short strips that could then be layered over one another and re-assembled to make the sequence.

Doing this with a code made out of just four nucleotides, the molecules that make up the units of deoxyribonucleic acid or DNA -- to be specific the A, C, T and G nucleotides -- might seem akin to doing a jigsaw puzzle with 3 billion pieces and just four colors in a random pattern.

DISDAIN AND DISBELIEF

In 1998, he attracted wide scientific disdain when he said he would beat the multi-national, decade-long effort to sequence all the DNA in the human genome. Other genomics experts predicted the resulting sequence would be slipshod and so full of gaps as to be nearly unusable.

But after some circling and mutual suspicion, Venter’s new company Celera Genomics and the international project joined forces and announced the complete genome sequence, ahead of schedule and under budget, in 2001.

“What was controversial 10 years ago, not surprisingly, is standard today,” Venter said.

Now he hopes to overcome similar skepticism with his work to create life from scratch.

Last week Venter and his new J. Craig Venter Institute published a study in the journal Science describing how they had used a synthetic genome of one bacterium to “boot up” the shell of a different species of bacteria.

Controversially, Venter calls it the "first self-replicating synthetic bacterial cell" on the Institute's websitehere.

Many others disagree with this characterization, as only the genome is synthetic and a natural, if hollowed-out, bacterium was vital to the experiment. Several scientists who did not wish to be quoted described the most recent news coverage as overhyped.

The work itself has been a long and stepwise process. In January 2008, Venter’s team announced they had synthesized and assembled the entire genome of the bacterium Mycoplasma genitalium, chosen because it has the smallest known genome of any truly living organism, with 485 working genes.

ANTICIPATING CRITICISM

Already aware of the potential ethical and environmental issues, Venter said the chromosome had been disabled so that it could not live outside the lab or take over some other organism by mistake. He also submitted his plan to ethical review by a panel at the University of Pennsylvania.

In June 2007, Venter’s team had succeeded in transferring genetic material from one bacterium into another, another essential step in the experiment reported last week.

Venter takes responsibility for his mixture of academic science and business.

“There is a risk with this approach and that is you have to be able to deliver,” he said.

“I liken it to making movies. If you make a move that wins an Oscar you are very likely to get funding to make a new movie.”

He’s included a bit of literary license in this latest project. In the DNA sequence of the new microbe, nicknamed “Synthia”, is encoded a line by James Joyce: “To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, and to recreate life out of life.”

When he testifies on Thursday to the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee, Venter is likely to describe some of his other projects, which include an attempt to explore the genes of all the organisms of the seas using the Sorcerer II, a 92-foot yacht, and as well as diving into the human microbiome -- all the bacteria, viruses and yeasts living in and on the human body.

Venter also has a $600 million joint venture with Exxon Mobil Corp to try to develop biofuel from algae.

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