Craig Venter the geneticist who made biology a personal challenge


“We only have an opportunity to live and to contribute to the future of life. The only “afterlife” is what people will remember you. ” Craig Venter


A life made of scientific and personal challenges, taking the risk of impossible enterprises. Constantly in the crosshairs of a certain political and scientific criticism for his aspirations as a “egocentric megalomaniac”, by Craig Venter we can surely recognize the inexhaustible inventiveness and dreamer soul, the real sparks of scientific discovery.

Rebels are born

John Craig Venter, American geneticist, biochemist and entrepreneur, was born in Salt Lake City, Utah on October 14, 1946. Immediately after his birth the family he moved to California, in the San Francisco area, where the teenager Venter spent his days surfing the Californian waves. After high school Craig Venter enrolled in the United States Navy and was sent to Vietnam, where he chose to work as a nurse.

The experience of war, which he renamed “University of Death“, Surely it marked his life and his future choices, as he tells in the autobiographical book”A decoded life”, In which the story of an attempted suicide at sea helped fuel his legend.

Back in the United States, Venter undertook a degree in biochemistry and then obtained a doctorate in physiology and pharmacology in 1975. In 1976 he began his research in neurochemistry at the State University of New York in Buffalo. In 1984 he moved to National Institute of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, where she focused on studying the genes involved in neurotransmission.

Just around this time, Craig Venter began to explore new gene identification techniques, alternatives to the classic, long and tedious methods. He then developed a gene identification technique based on EST sequences, from English express sequence markers, small sequences of DNA ubiquitously present in the expressed genes. Venter’s attempts to license these identified sequences sparked the first criticisms from the scientific community against him.

You become an entrepreneur

The turning point in his career began in 1992, when Venter founded theTIGR Research Institute with the support of the company Human Genome Sciences. In this institute, a group of researchers led by Venter’s first wife, the microbiologist Claire Fraser, sequenced the genome of the microorganism Mycoplasma genitalium.

In 1995, in collaboration Hamilton Smith, an American molecular geneticist, Venter sequenced the first complete genome, that of Haemophilus influenzae, a bacterium capable of causing meningitis in humans.

In 1998, Venter founded a private research institute, the Celera Genomics, with which he began sequencing the human genome in a marathon against the public consortium funded by the NIH. The use of the “shotgun sequencing”Allowed the Venter team to speed up the human genome sequencing process compared to colleagues in the public project.

Despite the profound criticism received by the scientific world for the technique used by Venter, in 2000 the first complete sequencing of the human genome, two years in advance of the deadline set by the Project Genome Human. The milestone was celebrated with a handshake between the President of the United States of America at the time Bill Clinton, the leader of the Public Consortium, Francis Collins and Craig Venter.

Venter, a modern Darwin

A further milestone in Venter’s life, completed in 2006, was that of Global Ocean Sampling Expedition. The goal was to sequence the biodiversity of the oceans, to overcome and complete the work started by Darwin in order to expand the catalog of available microorganisms and convert them into factories of the future. The arduous undertaking, for which a team of researchers turned into a perfect team of sailors, lasted 2 years on board the Sorcerer II, nothing less than Craig Venter’s personal yacht.

Image 1: Craig Venter in Sorcerer II

In 2006, after firing from Celera, Craig Venter founded the J. Craig Venter Research Institute (JCVI), a non-profit organization supporting scientific research.

Synthetic biology: a new challenge

JCVI scientists have been pioneers in the field of synthetic biology. In 2008, in fact, again in collaboration with Hamilton Smith, Venter and his colleagues created a complete synthetic genome starting from the genome of Mycoplasma genitalium. Two years later, the same team managed to reproduce a copy of this synthetic genome in another bacterium, Mycoplasma mycoides.

The creation of functional synthetic genomes opened the doors for the exploration of synthetic biology in order to produce alternative energy sources.

In 2016 Venter and collaborators announced the realization of the first bacterium with an essential synthetic genome, that is, a genome consisting of only 473 genes, the fundamental ones to ensure its reproduction and survival.

Focus: whole genome shotgun sequencing

Shotgun sequencing is a random sequencing technique of short DNA sequences. It is named for the analogy to the rapid and regrettable gunshot.

In shotgun sequencing of an entire genome, DNA is fragmented into numerous small segments which are sequenced several times and then assembled through the aid of computer programs, in the absence of a prior physical map of the fragments obtained, unlike the hierarchical shotgun ( Image 2).

Whole genome shotgun versus hierarchical shotgun
Image 2: Differences in the steps for shotgun sequencing in the case of whole-genome or hierarchical sequencing

This technique was first described in 1979 with the genome sequencing of the virus cauliflower mosaic. The use of an automated sequencing process has therefore made way for the sequencing of entire genomes, as in the case of Haemophilus influenzae, the first genome on the list.

The optimization of the shotgun technique by Celera Genomics, with the creation of numerous fragments of different sizes and the implementation of powerful analysis techniques, allowed Craig Venter to accelerate the public project of sequencing the human genome.

Scientific contribution

Craig Venter’s journey through life has already shown us the main contributions he offered to science as mentor of ambitious and innovative projects. Certainly much of his fame derives from his great contribution to the human genome sequencing project (Human Genome Project) thanks to the development and optimization in his laboratories of the shotgun sequencing technique in 1999.

The second arm of Venter’s innovative research is represented by the field of synthetic biology, which culminates with the announcement on Science in 2010 of the creation in the laboratory of the first cell artificial, characterized by a synthetic genome.


In 2001 he won the Prince of Asturias Award for scientific and technical research.

Serena Galiè


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