. Craig Venter, who raced
government-financed researchers to decode the human genome
then was ousted from the company he made famous, plans to
create a huge laboratory that would rival efforts by his
former company and his public competitors.
Dr. Venter is to announce today that he plans to build what
he believes will be the nation's largest genome sequencing
center, one that will introduce new technology that vastly
decreases the time and cost required to determine the DNA code
of people, animals and microbes.
"Our goal is to get to where we can do a whole genome
analysis in minutes or hours, in contrast to months or years,"
Dr. Venter said in an interview.
The center could move Dr. Venter back into the center of
the genomics world, a position he had until January when he
was forced to resign from Celera
Genomics, the company he helped found to sequence the
human genome in an often acrimonious race with the publicly
financed Human Genome Project.
But this time, he said, the sequencing center will be
not-for-profit, making its information freely available
instead of selling it like Celera did.
"You could look at this as him building something new in
the public sector that had the mission that he wanted Celera
to follow," said Gerald Rubin, professor of genetics at the
University of California and a vice president of the Howard
Hughes Medical Institute.
Dr. Venter denied that he was trying to upstage either his
former company or his former rivals on the Human Genome
Project. It appears, however, that his center will do some of
the same things Celera is doing in analyzing genetic
variations among people. The center will also compete for
federal grants with the university sequencing centers involved
in the Human Genome Project.
One goal, he said, is to get the cost down to $2,000 to
$3,000 to analyze a person's entire genome, compared with the
hundreds of millions of dollars it took to determine the first
human genome sequence.
At that price, probably not reachable for 10 years, it will
become practical to tailor medical care to each person based
on genetic makeup, he said.
"One thing that is very clear is that existing technology
is not up to any of those tasks," Dr. Venter said.
The new sequencing center will be built in Rockville, Md.,
and run by three nonprofit organizations Dr. Venter started.
They are the Institute for Genomic Research, known as TIGR,
which is a leader in sequencing microbial genomes, and two new
institutes that Dr. Venter set up after leaving Celera.
Dr. Venter said the center would cost $20 million to $100
million to build and operate over the first four years. He
will provide the initial financing from money he made from
Celera and a previous company. But he said the sequencing
center would eventually support itself on grants from the
federal government and others.
Many scientists and companies are trying to lower the cost
and raise the speed of genome sequencing, which would allow
many more plant and animal species to be sequenced as well as
make medical diagnostics and biowarfare agent detection more
practical. Scientists at a workshop held recently by the Human
Genome Project, for instance, discussed the prospects of
achieving the "thousand-dollar genome."
So while it is unclear yet what impact Dr. Venter will
have, some scientists said that given his track record, he
should not be counted out.
"Craig is very good at transformational events," said
Trevor Hawkins, senior vice president of Amersham Biosciences, a maker of DNA
sequencers, and previously the director of the Department of
Energy's genome sequencing center.
But Larry Thompson, a spokesman for the National Human
Genome Research Institute, which ran the Human Genome Project,
played down the development, saying: "He's setting up a new
laboratory. Lots of companies set up new laboratories all the
The new sequencing center could be good news for makers of
equipment for genetic analysis, whose sales have slowed
because the human genome project is nearly finished and
because many biotechnology companies are facing financial
"I can't imagine why I would be unhappy that someone wants
to create another sequencing center," said Michael W.
Hunkapiller, president of Applied Biosystems, a manufacturer
of DNA sequencers that is the sister company of Celera.
Dr. Hunkapiller discounted the idea that Dr. Venter was
trying to compete with his old company, even though Dr. Venter
began making his announcement on the day Applied Biosystems
was rolling out its newest sequencing machine at a seminar in
Boston where some of the leaders of the Human Genome Project
Dr. Venter said he had not yet decided whether to buy
sequencers from Applied Biosystems and said it was just
"unfortunate timing" that his announcement coincided with that
of his old company.
One technology Dr. Venter is intrigued by is being
developed by U. S. Genomics, a startup company in Woburn,
Mass. Dr. Venter is becoming a consultant to U. S. Genomics
and one of its directors, making it the only corporate board
on which he sits.
The company's technology uncoils the double helix of DNA
and feeds it through a machine that reads it, like a movie
reel going through a projector. The machine cannot read
individual DNA letters but rather markers attached to the DNA.
But that might be enough to get information on how one person
differs genetically from the reference human genome sequence.
"You can analyze an entire chromosome in like a fraction of a
second," Dr. Venter said.
Dr. Venter, 55, was a pioneer in the rapid discovery of
genes when he was at the National Institutes of Health. He
left to start TIGR, a nonprofit sequencing institute that did
the first sequence of a microorganism. He is still the
chairman of TIGR, which is run by his wife, Claire M. Fraser.
In 1998, with backing from Applied Biosystems, Dr. Venter
started Celera, boasting that it would beat the publicly
financed Human Genome Project to determining the three billion
DNA letters in human chromosomes. The public project sped up
and achieved a tie.
But Celera's plan to profit by selling the data it
generated did not live up to expectations, so the company is
now turning to developing drugs. That shift in strategy, plus
friction with the boss of Celera's parent company, led Dr.
Venter to quit Celera.
He then set up two foundations, the Center for the
Advancement of Genomics, to explore public policy issues
related to genomics, and the Institute for Biological Energy
Alternatives, to use microbes to produce energy and ease
Dr. Venter said all three of his institutes needed to be
able to do sequencing. TIGR is running out of capacity, in
part because fears of bioterrorism have increased the need to
genetically analyze pathogens. The new center will increase
TIGR's sequencing capacity severalfold.
The public policy institute will use sequencing of
individuals to explore the genetic differences between races
and whether that is medically relevant. The environmental
institute plans to sequence numerous microbes.
Indeed, Dr. Venter said, he plans to try to sequence all
the microbes of a sample of water from the Atlantic Ocean at
once. If the cost of sequencing drops, that could become a new
way to monitor ecosystems, he said.