SPIEGEL Interview with Craig Venter: 'We Have Learned Nothing from the Genome'

In a SPIEGEL interview, genetic scientist Craig Venter discusses the 10 years he spent sequencing the human genome, why we have learned so little from it a decade on and the potential for mass production of artificial life forms that could be used to produce fuels and other resources.

The world's first bacteria with a synthetic genome was even coded with an e-mail address. Zoom
Science / AAAS

The world's first bacteria with a synthetic genome was even coded with an e-mail address.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Venter, when the elite among gene researchers undertook the decoding of the human genome, you were their greatest enemy. They called you "Frankenstein," "blood sucker," "Darth Venter" and even "asshole." Why do you attract so much hostility?

Venter: Well, nobody likes to be beaten -- by superior intelligence, planning and technology. That gets people upset.

SPIEGEL: Every area of science is competitive. But it doesn't lead to that kind of hostility in all areas.

Venter: The human genome project was completely different, it was supposed to be the biggest thing in the history of biological sciences. Billions in government funding for a single project -- we had never seen anything like that before in biology. And then a single person comes along and beats scientists who have been working on it for years. It is no wonder they didn't like that.

SPIEGEL: Wasn't it more the case that your opponents were afraid that you, as a profit-oriented entrepreneur, would make the human genome your own private property?

Venter: That is totally absurd; and you know it. Initially, Francis Collins and the other people on the Human Genome Project claimed that my methods would never work. When they started to realize that they were wrong, they began personal attacks against me and made up these things about the ownership of the genome. It was all absurd.

SPIEGEL: So it was all just propaganda?

Venter: At the end of the day, it is an argument over nothing. But this battle between common good and commerce -- that is the kind of story that sells newspapers.

SPIEGEL: Was the importance of gene patents, which fueled the dispute, exaggerated?

Venter: First of all, nobody has made any serious money off patents on human genes except patent attorneys. Second, I do not hold any patents on human genes. You can do a patent search. Then you can convince yourself.

SPIEGEL: On June 26, 2000, you had a major event -- you met with Francis Collins at the White House

Venter: yeah, it was obviously a big historic event. It was pretty stunning, making an announcement at the White House to the entire world. It was a big triumph for me and my team because it proved that we had won.

SPIEGEL: At the time, none of you had won. Nobel Prize recipient John Sulston, one of the researchers of the government-funded genome project wrote

Venter: What was his quote? That he and his people were a bunch of phonies who had nothing?

SPIEGEL: In essence, he wrote that you both had nothing.

Venter: He had no idea what we had. Sulston has proven he is not the most credible source on anything other than his own data. He said they were a bunch of phonies, we have to take him at his word on that.

SPIEGEL: It seems to have been the only time in history that a new scientific discovery was announced officially by the government. How did that unusual agreement in the White House take shape?

Venter: It was a political compromise because the people at the public Human Genome Project were afraid we would announce what we had. And we were afraid they would use the White House to make it look like they had won.

SPIEGEL: It appeared at the time that you had agreed to be undecided. Do you now view yourself as the winner of the race?

Venter: I don't think it really matters.

SPIEGEL: The New York Times later declared the public Human Genome Project to be the victor. Can you really claim that you don't care?

Venter: Oh, the New York Times! How do you define the "winner" in this case? What is decisive is that it is our data that is in the databases -- not the data the consortium put together back then.

SPIEGEL: The genome project has been called the Manhattan Project or Moon Landing of its era. It has also been said that knowledge of the genes will change the future of humanity and become a "main driver of the world economy."

Venter: Who said that? I didn't. That was the people at the consortium.

SPIEGEL: You're wrong. You made all those statements in an interview with DER SPIEGEL in 1998.

Venter: Really? Those are Francis Collins' lines. So I may have said that that's how he describes it. I, on the other hand, have always said, "This is a race from the starting line to the finish."

SPIEGEL: The genome project hasn't just raised hopes -- but also worries. Do you understand those concerns?

Venter: Yes. There are two groups of people. People either want to know the information or they prefer to live like an ostrich with their head in the sand, not knowing anything. The fear is based on the ill-founded belief that those who know the DNA sequence also know every aspect of life. This nonsense has been spread by the same geneticists who were afraid of the commercialization of this stuff. From the time of the first few discoveries of gene defects -- Huntington's disease, for example, everybody thought that if you knew your genome, you would know when you would die and what you would die from. That is nonsense.

SPIEGEL: So the significance of the genome isn't so great after all?

Venter: Not at all. I can tell you from my own experience. I put my own genome on the Internet. People had the notion this was the scariest thing out there. But what happened? Nothing.

SPIEGEL: Nevertheless, Jim Watson, the co-discoverer of the DNA double helix, has said he doesn't want to know which variant of the so-called ApoE gene he has -- it could say something about his risk for developing Alzheimer's, and he's afraid of that

Venter: That was silliness. At that age? Watson is over 80.

SPIEGEL: Are you interested in finding out what ApoE variant you have?

Venter: I know it. And according to it, I have a slightly increased risk for Alzheimer's disease. But it impresses me little because I could have dozens of other genes that counteract it. Because we do not know that, this information is meaningless.

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About Craig Venter
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Ten years ago, Craig Venter had plenty of reason to feel triumphant. Standing at the White House together with his rival Francis Collins of the National Institutes of Health as well as then-President Bill Clinton and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, he announced the successful sequencing of the human genome. The historic press conference marked the end of a bitter race between Venter's firm Celera and the Human Genome Project, a government-sponsored consortium of around 1,000 scientists from around the world. Both groups had technically mapped the genome, but Venter's team had done it faster and cheaper. Since then, multimillionaire Venter, 63, has established a reputation within the scientific community for being a rebel. It's an image he appears to relish, and he stuns the world again and again with one brash victory after another. He is currently sailing around the world in his Sorcerer II research yacht documenting the genetic diversity of the world's oceans. He recently departed Valencia, Spain, to begin an expedition in the Mediterranean Sea. In May, he announced that his team had produced the world's first bacteria with a synthetic genome.



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