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March 2002
Vol. 5, No. 3, p 7.
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One good idea

What are we to make of the recent departure of J. Craig Venter as president of Celera Genomics Group? Celera’s parent company, Applera Corporation, announced on January 22 that Venter was stepping down. The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal reported that senior management at Applera decided to change Celera’s mission and thought that Venter was not the right person to lead the new Celera. Initially it was to be a subscription database company where pharmaceutical companies could explore genetic information derived from human, mouse, bacterial, and other sources; now Celera is apparently to become a full participant in the pharmaceutical development enterprise, finding, marketing, and reaping the financial benefits from its own drugs.

Maybe the removal of Venter is the right decision. Corporate leadership in drug development is no doubt different from that of decoding genomes. The latter seems to be more factory-like, with row upon row of genetic-sequencing machines pouring out their PCR-amplified nucleotides, all to be chromatographed and MS-analyzed. Drug development is less defined, with wide choices about which genetic and protein targets to choose for investigation. But even though Venter will no longer lead Celera, the significance of his contribution to science needs to be recognized and commended.

Venter’s genius was to see that massive automation was the key. He adapted Hamilton Smith’s shotgun strategy, which proposed that rather than determining each nucleic acid in a sequence from the original DNA, one could blast the DNA into thousands of nucleotide pieces, each of which could be easily PCR-amplified and deciphered. With the sequence of all the pieces known, the original DNA genome sequence could be determined by overlaying the pieces where they match up, much like a giant jigsaw puzzle. Using Applied Biosystems’ sequencing instruments, this idea of automation (like Ford’s grand vision of the assembly line) accelerated the pace of genetic mapping to breathtaking speed. When the human genome sequence project was started, it was generally believed that it would take 10 to 20 years to complete. By forcing what became known as the genome race, Venter and his NIH rivals completed their sequencing efforts in half the time. Many people believe that Venter, along with his NIH counterpart, Francis Collins, will one day be awarded a Nobel prize.

If that happens, it may well be a moment reminiscent of that depicted by Ron Howard in his movie A Beautiful Mind. For any who haven’t seen the film, it recounts the personal travails and professional triumphs of Princeton mathematician John F. Nash. His 1950 doctoral thesis on game theory and its concept of equilibrium have become the dominant tool for analyzing economic issues such as how private companies and financial markets interact through central banks. On the personal level, Nash has dealt with a lifetime of schizophrenia, graphically portrayed in the film with imaginary government agents and insulin shock therapy. Yet throughout it all, his work on game theory stood rocklike, a huge and sturdy foundation upon which others built a way of understanding our economic world. At the end of the film, Nash is shown in 1995 dressed in white tie, standing in Stockholm, acknowledging the praise of his colleagues. Some who have seen the film say it shows that all you need for a Nobel prize is one good idea. Perhaps so. And although Craig Venter has a body of work that goes beyond using factory automation to decode the human genome, that one idea will undoubtedly stand up 50 years from now in biotechnology as well as Nash’s does in economics. Venter may have lost his corporate post, but his inspiration will transcend that loss, and we will all be the better for it.

James Ryan

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