To what degree is Craig Venter a product of his age? It's hard not to ask this question in reading his memoir, "A Life Decoded: My Life, My Genome" (390 pages. Viking. $25.95). Venter is the maverick biologist who galvanized the genetics research establishment by triggering a race to decode the first human genome, the DNA instruction book present in each human cell. The battle, one of the most bitter and public in the history of science, ended in a kind of truce on June 26, 2000, with President Bill Clinton presiding over a press conference on the White House lawn. To the left of the podium sat Francis Collins, the consummate establishment scientist and head of the U.S. National Institutes of Health; to the right sat Venter, the loner. Petty carping had flared out of both camps before the meeting, and continue to this day; Venter's book is the latest salvo.
There's grist enough here for a hundred anger-management seminars. Venter lashes out at his many enemies, including Collins, who headed the plodding international effort that Venter challenged, the scientists who opposed him and even some of his corporate benefactors who he felt had betrayed his scientific ideals. Most of all, he criticizes the research establishment: the nine-month waiting period after a grant application, which makes it exceedingly difficult to do science at the cutting edge; the arbitrary way money is doled out; the political infighting. "Outright hostility and vitriol are not necessary to successfully kill a rival's grant application; one merely has to be lukewarm or offer faint praise," he writes. These criticisms sometimes seem small, but perhaps the moment called for somebody with Venter's particular DNA—the intellect, the ego and the impatience to cut through the noise and get things done.
Venter is no ordinary academic genius. As a student, he was mediocre. "No one who met me as a teenager could have imagined my going into research and making important discoveries," he writes. He showed a love of racing early on; as a child, he and his friends, riding bicycles, tried to outrun airplanes taking off from San Francisco airport. Drafted into the Navy during the Vietnam War, he scored a "respectable" 142 on an IQ test, good enough to join the medical corps. (He knew that medics were discharged quicker, but learned too late that it was because their survival rates were low.) One day, on a break from patching up wounded soldiers, he swam out of sight with thoughts of drowning himself, before turning back.
His talent for research emerged at the University of California, San Diego, where he demonstrated a knack for cutting right to the heart of the most interesting scientific questions. He did research on adrenaline, publishing in scientific journals while still an undergraduate. Working at the NIH in the 1990s, Venter chafed under the direction of James Watson, the codiscoverer of the structure of DNA. The NIH had embarked on the genome project, expecting to plow through the 3 billion letters of the human genome until 2015. But the technologies for sequencing DNA were changing fast, and Venter believed that the NIH and other big scientific institutes didn't lend themselves to rapid response. Venter decided to switch to the private sector, eventually accepting $300 million from the Perkin-Elmer Corp., which had developed novel gene-sequencing machines, to attempt to decipher the genome singlehandedly.
When it came to cooperating with the NIH-led effort, Venter's formidable competitive instincts seemed to get the better of him. One of his ideas was to have his company, Celera, decode the human genome, and let Collins's operation handle the mouse genome. He couldn't understand why Collins would reject such an idea, "even though it was the most efficient way forward for the science."
Once the race had begun, Venter was able to balance the competing interests of the marketplace and basic research only through the sheer force of his personality. Decoding the human genome was molecular biology on a grand scale, and the stakes were huge. Venter recounts how Tony White, Perkin-Elmer's blunt-spoken CEO, could never grasp how Venter's business plan was supposed to make the company any money. Venter's boldness alienated some of the pre-eminent scientists of his generation. The ordeal cost him his marriage and his job—shortly after the White House announcement, Celera sacked him.
Venter is now ensconced in the J. Craig Venter Institute, where he's pursuing a dizzying array of wild-sounding research projects—decoding the DNA of novel ocean water, building bacteria that could produce biofuels, and so on. The idea, as always, is to save the world—he is, in other words, as egomaniacal and driven as ever. That's good for us. May God grant him another wow finish.