Atop one of the last open bluffs in La Jolla, on the campus of UCSD, a tattered homemade swing hangs from a giant old eucalyptus tree. Swept by Pacific breezes, the land commands a sweeping view of the La Jolla coast and the ocean beyond.
The property has been a place of rare solitude on the busy university campus. Many locals think it should stay that way, a place to sit alone and reflect on the beauty of nature and the peaceful sea beyond. Others say that if the land is to be developed at all, it should be as labs and classrooms for students and graduate researchers.
But this site, one of the few remaining tracts of undeveloped ocean-view property owned by the university, is coveted by J. Craig Venter, known as the nation’s preeminent gene warrior, a skilled street fighter in the halls of academe and government, and one of the most controversial figures in the history of modern science.
Venter wants to lease the land for five decades and build a starkly modern, fortress-like headquarters for his J. Craig Venter Institute. Currently operating out of temporary quarters in a nondescript building in a Torrey Pines office park near the General Atomics building, the institute is home to a controversial plan to make new life employing artificial chromosomes — chemically patterned after those found in nature but endowed by man with awesome new powers to cure and perhaps, some critics say, create human disease.
If successful, Venter would almost certainly change the face of the planet — and human existence — forever. He would also become fantastically rich and probably win the Nobel Prize, an achievement to which he has long aspired.
Venter’s sponsors say they hope that the resulting artificial organisms — their genetic core meticulously fabricated from tiny pieces of DNA, the code of life — will produce new sources of energy and cures for cancer and other deadly diseases. His critics maintain that a new era of biological warfare and patented “life for hire,” quietly funded by the United States government and Big Oil, has arrived.
Sixty-two-year-old Venter — glib and balding, with a light beard — is a UCSD homeboy to the bone. A brilliant mind but a late starter, he graduated in the mid-1960s from high school in Millbrae, California, to assume the life of a surfer in Orange County. Later, he became a medic in the bloody surgical suites of Vietnam. Back from the war in 1969, he went on to junior college in San Mateo, and then on to UCSD, rising from a humble transfer student to shake the American scientific establishment to its roots.
A self-proclaimed religious skeptic, Venter has cultivated his reputation as a swashbuckling scientist, surfer, open-water sailor, and entrepreneur. In the mid-1990s, he kick-started the genetic revolution when he dared to compete head-to-head with a slow-moving federal research establishment that included James D. Watson, cowinner of the 1962 Nobel Prize, in a race to decode the human genome.
Though Bill Clinton’s White House declared the Human Genome Project battle a draw, Venter and others continue to insist that he actually won. An undisputed genius in the art of exploiting emerging technologies, Venter has dragged other researchers into a new age of genetic sequencing, using robots and high-powered computers to break nature’s hold over the secrets of the human genome.
In much the same way Venter treated his scientific peers, he did not handle the chains of DNA that contain the genetic information gently; in a hurry to get to their secrets, he put the long strands into glass vials of solution and “shotgunned” them, blasting them into millions of fragments.
He took the resulting fragments and sent them through newly developed machines that mapped the molecular order that spells out the genetic code. Once Venter deciphered the broken-up code contained by each of the small fragments, he used computers to reassemble it in the correct order, resulting in digital representations of thousands of complete genes, coding for the proteins that are the building blocks of life. Though critics said it couldn’t be done, Venter hired the best programmers in the business and bought a basement full of computers to derive sense from the millions of seemingly random pieces, making him, at least briefly, master of the genetic universe.
Clinton brought an end to the gene wars at a Rose Garden press conference in June 2000, forcing Venter into an agreement that allowed federal researchers to save face. The deal left Venter nursing a serious grudge. A considerable amount of the friction between Venter and the government derived from the fact that after April 1992, the federal researchers’ efforts were led by Watson’s successor, Francis Collins, whose Christian beliefs differed from Venter’s religious skepticism.
As Venter notes in his 2007 autobiography, A Life Decoded, “Collins is a devout born-again Christian who believes that scientific truth provides a glimpse of an ‘even greater Truth.’ When the job [as director of the Human Genome Project] was offered to him, he had wondered if it was God’s calling, and spent an afternoon praying in a chapel before deciding to set forth on what he called an awesome adventure.”
Venter recalled Clinton’s speech in June 2000, during the White House announcement of the compromise that ended the war between government researchers and Venter’s company. Said Clinton: “Today we are learning the language in which God created life. We are gaining ever more awe for the complexity, the beauty, the wonder of God’s most divine and sacred gift.” Complains Venter in his autobiography, “The religious gloss was familiar: Francis had been working with the President’s speech writer.” Venter further opines: “I realize that in America such references are a political necessity, but it detracted from all my hard work and that of an army of genome scientists to have this huge advance in the rational pursuit of the secrets of life linked to a particular belief system…the thought of being a self-replicating bag of chemicals that resulted from four billion years of evolution is far more awesome to me than the notion that a cosmic clockmaker snapped his fingers to put me together.”