Genome Pioneer Will Start Center of His Own
The New York Times The New York Times Science August 15, 2002  

Job Market
Real Estate
- Earth Science
- Life Science
- Physical Science
- Social Science
- Space
- Columns
New York Region
NYT Front Page
Readers' Opinions

Dining & Wine
Home & Garden
Fashion & Style
New York Today
Week in Review
Learning Network
Theater Tickets
Premium Products
NYT Store
NYT Mobile
E-Cards & More
About NYTDigital
Jobs at NYTDigital
Online Media Kit
Our Advertisers
Your Profile
E-Mail Preferences
News Tracker
Premium Account
Site Help
Privacy Policy
Home Delivery
Customer Service
Electronic Edition
Media Kit
Community Affairs
Text Version

Discover New Topics in Depth

Find More Low Fares! Experience Orbitz!

Go to Advanced Search/ArchiveGo to Advanced Search/ArchiveSymbol Lookup
Search Options divide
go to Member Center Log Out
  Welcome, eco_dude

Genome Pioneer Will Start Center of His Own


J. 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 time."

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 difficulties.

"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 were speaking.

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 global warming.

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.

Doing research? Search the archive for more than 500,000 articles:

E-Mail This Article
Printer-Friendly Format
Most E-Mailed Articles

Start the day informed with home delivery of The New York Times newspaper.
Click Here for 50% off.

Home | Back to Science | Search | Corrections | Help | Back to Top

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company | Permissions | Privacy Policy
E-Mail This Article
Printer-Friendly Format
Most E-Mailed Articles


Genetics and Heredity
Venter, J Craig
Celera Genomics Group
Genetic Engineering
Create Your Own | Manage Alerts
Take a Tour
Sign Up for Newsletters

Science Times Book of Genetics

Price: $20 Learn more.

You can be the first to know about promotions, offers and new products from select advertisers. Click here to sign up.

Search Sales
Search Rentals
Find Commercial Space
Mortgage & Moving Services
Mortgage Quotes
Moving Quotes
City Comparisons
Mortgage Payment Calculator