Last Word: Craig Venter

In what may be remembered as the age of biology, Craig Venter is the field's pre-eminent innovator. He startled the world by making rapid strides towards sequencing the DNA of a human genome at Celera Genomics. (His well-publicized race with Francis Collins, president of the National Human Genome Research Institute, ended in a gentlemen's tie when the two scientists and President Bill Clinton heralded the project's completion in 2001.) Last week, Venter announced that his private institute had achieved another milestone: a far more complete sequencing of one man's genome—his own. (The earlier genome was a composite of several different people.) Venter is hoping that his genome will be the first of thousands to join a database that could yield breakthroughs in preventative medicine. He spoke with NEWSWEEK's Fred Guterl.

Guterl: What exactly did you accomplish?
Venter: THE previous effort only did half the job. What was sequenced was basically half the genome. It was naively assumed you could infer the other half from the first half, and now it's clear you cannot. At Celera, we used the same technique for decoding my own genome. When we'd assembled the five other people to make up a composite, what we got was not representative of what the human genome looks like. We had hints of that in 2000 or 2001, and it was always my interest in going back to it. Celera wasn't interested in that, so we did it in my institute.

What do the results tell you?
What we got this time was a diploid genome—a genome that includes both sets of chromosomes from both my parents. We were surprised at how much variation between individuals there was.

You mean there ' s more genetic difference between one person and the next than we previously thought?
Absolutely. It's quite comforting to me as an individualist that we're not very close to being clones of one other.

Humans differ from chimps by 5 or 6 percent of our genes. Is there more variation than that between individual humans?
It's complex. You have two sets of chromosomes that are different from each other. So if we were comparing yours and mine, we're comparing four different chromosomes. It's really quite complicated. But the point is, we are far more individualistic than we thought. As an individualist, I like that notion.

Is that a setback for the effort to find the genetic basis for diseases?
It may be a setback for [semiconductor] companies that thought you could [make chips that] measure single base-pair variations in DNA and come up with a measure for vulnerability to disease. It also means we're going to need to decode lots of complete human genomes. The good news is that the technology is changing rapidly, so we'll have the ability to do that. The cost is going from billions of dollars to tens of millions to maybe $100,000 by the end of this year.

Why did you choose to decode your own genome?
It goes back to the government's notion that genetics has to be secret and anonymous. But there's really nothing anonymous with your genetic sequence—it's the ultimate identifier. I thought it was showing proper leadership—to show that I don't think there's any risk in it. I don't know if there's any scientist in this field that wouldn't want to have his own genome known.

Where is all this research headed?
Preventative medicine. The No. 1 theme I have is, there are no yes-or-no answers, or very few that will ever come out of the human genome. There are some rare disorders like Huntington's where there's a change in one gene to predict the onset of the disease, but that's extremely rare and not typical of what is going to be found. You don't have to have 100 percent certainty to avoid risk and take preventative medicines. People talk about personalized medicine, with drugs made for each person. I don't think it will ever happen in that way. Statistical information can be very useful in prevention. As we get more of these genomes, statistics will start to have an impact on people's lives.

What ' s the next step?
If you can imagine having a database of thousands of human genomes, we could begin to understand the statistics on genes that are connected with disease. We want to take 10,000 human diploid genomes so we can start asking some important questions. With more genomes to analyze, the numbers will only get better and better. I can tell you from reading my genetic code that it's not impossible to interpret it for anybody and understand what it all means. We're going to make my genetic code a reference going forward.

What do you think about current research priorities?
Research is too bureaucratic. The power to distribute hundreds of millions of dollars in federal financing is in the hands of a very few people, who clearly have a very different vision than I do. The U.S. government has funded very little human sequencing. If we'd set out to do what we've done [at the institute] as a dedicated project, we could have done it four years ago.