Craig Venter is the founder, chairman and CEO of the J. Craig Venter Institute in La Jolla, CA, United States. He will be giving the Mendel Lecture on Tuesday June 18 at 13.30 hrs. He talked to Mary Rice about his life and work.

“From a very young age I was interested in the natural world around me and given that it was the 1950’s parents allowed their kids to just play and explore on their own.,” says Craig Venter. “I revelled in that and would spend all day outside. I was also very interested in building things. I was an avid reader of Scientific American and would build things I saw in there. I was not, however a good student and really hated the school system because it relied on rote memorization and regurgitation of facts which was the worst way for me to learn. In short, my early years were hardly a model of discipline and direction.”

Being drafted into the navy during the Vietnam War changed all that. “Although I was opposed to the war, I had no choice but to join up. I worked in the intensive care ward of a field hospital, where I saw people suffering and dying every day,” he says. “I was one of the lucky ones who served there and returned. It taught me a lot, the first thing being that the worst thing you can lose is your life, but also that taking risks and suffering setbacks are part of moving forward.” And it instilled in him the desire to study medicine.

Following his first degree in biochemistry at the University of California, San Diego, where he studied under the biochemist Nathan O. Kaplan, he received a PhD in physiology and pharmacology; “I very quickly learned to love excelling at school and went on to get my undergrad and PhD in record time.,” he says.  After moving to become a professor at the State University of New York, Buffalo, he joined the US National Institutes of Health in 1984.

At NIH he developed an innovative DNA sequencing machine and became the first in the world to publish a paper containing data obtained by an automated sequencing method. “My career in science would never be the same again,” he says.  Around this time he first became involved in the discussions of a project that would eventually propel his research into the limelight – the Human Genome Project.

Frustrated with the approach and the slow progress of the publicly-funded HGP, he sought funding from the private sector to create Celera Genomics. Using shotgun sequencing, Celera caught up rapidly with the international project, and in 2000 they shared the credit for the mapping of the human genome.

Since that day, Venter has not stopped in his quest for new knowledge. In 2005 he co-founded Synthetic Genomics, a company dedicated to the creation of modified microorganisms to produce clean fuels and biochemical. In 2010, a team of scientists from the company became the first to create ‘synthetic life’, a single-celled organism including, among other things, its own email address.

“The science of synthetic genomics is having and will continue to have a profound impact on human existence, including new chemical and energy generation, human health and medical advances, clean water and food production, positive environmental impact, and possibly even our evolution,” he says.

Retirement is a taboo subject. “I love what I do and see no reason to ever stop – for me, retirement equals death But I will say that over the last two years I have come to enjoy and see the need for a healthy work/life balance and do things that are non-science related too like sailing and flying.”

Picture: Hallbauer & Fioretti, Braunschweig, Germany.

Picture: Brett Shipe.