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Machines Like Us

Craig Venter wants to solve the world’s energy crisis

Saturday, 19 May 2012

There is one version of Craig Venter’s life story where he would’ve been a dutiful scientist at the National Institutes of Health, a respected yet anonymous researcher in genetics, perhaps. Thankfully, Venter saw that story line developing—and set about making sure it never happened.

Instead, in 1992 Venter left the NIH to head the nonprofit Institute for Genomic Research. Six years later he founded Celera Genomics, a brash rival to the NIH project that aimed to sequence the full code of the human genome. Venter had come up with a better technique—known as shotgun sequencing—to get the job done, and it changed the way we translate genetics from proteins into code. Not incidentally, it also served as a model for today’s Big Data explosion in science and research. In 2001 Celera officially “tied” the NIH to the genome finish line, though the company’s sequence was more than a bit further along. (Celera’s model genome, it just so happened, included Venter’s own DNA.)

In the decade since, Venter has been on a tear of invention and exploration. In 2004 he sailed around the world, discovering thousands of new species and sequencing millions of new genes. In 2007 he unveiled his own genome, unexpurgated (it revealed a predisposition for risk-taking, among other things). And in 2010 he announced the first successful synthesis of life—a unique critter borne from two distinct organisms, thus proving for the first time that it is indeed possible to create new organisms for specific purposes and functions. He is, in every respect, the epitome of an icon—a figure who has pushed science forward, sometimes by sheer force of will.

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