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Who is Craig Venter?

written by: •edited by: Paul Arnold•updated: 12/4/2009

Craig Venter is arguably one of the most famous scientists in genetics research. He was involved in the race to map the human genome and some people refer to him as the 'Bill Gates' of biotechnology.

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    Famous Scientist in Genetics Research

    Craig Venter came to worldwide prominence as the scientist who led the private and parallel research effort to map the human genome. As one of the most famous scientists in genetics research he is an accomplished and controversial figure. The announcement of the near completion of the Human Genome Project in 2000 was made with Venter, President Bill Clinton and Dr Francis Collins from the National Institutes of Health all sharing the platform. At the time Venter was president of Celera Genomics and the media dubbed him 'Darth Venter' for his desire to make a profit out of the human genome by charging researchers access to his company's data. Mainstream science attacked him for daring to take them on in a race to sequence the human genome. In the end it was a draw, but the constant clashes gave him something of a maverick reputation.

    That may be something that doesn't bother Venter, my guess would be that he doesn't lose sleep over it. After all some of the most successful and famous scientists in history were mavericks at one time or another; Einstein and Copernicus bring to mind. What irks the scientific community so much, as well as large sections of society is the commercial side of some of his enterprises.

    As a mark of his impact on society Time Magazine had him in their 2008 list of the world's most influential people.

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    Biologist and Businessman

    A biologist and a businessman, he's a millionaire many many times over. He founded, and is the president of the J. Craig Venter Institute, a non-profit organisation dedicated to the advancement of genomics and its implications for society. In 2005 he co-founded Synthetic Genomics.

    Venture's two main missions at the moment are to map the diversity of the microbes from environments such as oceans and town centres. His second is the attempt to create synthetic organisms.

    The oceanic research filtered sea water to collect different marine micro organisms. DNA was extracted and sequenced; around 100 million letters were sequenced every 24 hours. Whenever dealing with microbes, numbers and statistics can be truly staggering. An example of how much new science Venter's project uncovered is that one barrel of sea water from one site contained 1.3 million new genes in as many as 50 000 new species.

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    Synthetic Organisms

    The creation of synthetic organisms is an audacious project. His company is attempting to design and synthesize micro organisms to manufacture alternative fuels such as ethanol. If successful it could free us from our dependence on oil.

    In early 2008 the project reached a major landmark with the announcement that Venter and his colleagues had chemically synthesised the genome of a simple bacterium. It was an incredible step and moves us a step further along the road from simply reading a genome to not only manipulating it but designing whole new ones. The potential of course is huge but are we ready for whatever comes next?

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    J Craig Venter Institute