Though casting himself as a rowdy libertarian of science, Venter himself has often been quietly allied with big government, relying on funding from his nonprofit foundation, which in turn derives much of its financial support from U.S. taxpayers. A good part has come from the Energy Department, and lately, the University of California has become a major partner. Even Venter’s epochal decoding of the human genome was based in part on work conducted by federally funded scientists.
Additional financial support for Venter arrived in the form of contributions and investments from wealthy San Diego individuals with close ties to the defense establishment. One is J. Robert Beyster, founder of SAIC (Science Applications International Corporation), the giant military contractor based in La Jolla, which made billions of dollars from the federal government. Now retired, Beyster is a philanthropist and investor who is helping Venter with a plan to collect and sequence ocean life forms during transglobal voyages on Venter’s luxury yacht, Sorcerer II.
“I’ve mentioned before that I am hoping to sponsor Craig Venter’s next ocean-sampling trip,” Beyster recently wrote on his blog. “The boat will start in San Diego and pass through the Panama Canal on the way to the northeastern United States, where it will spend the winter. In the spring, the boat will cross the Atlantic and then head to the Baltic and Mediterranean Seas. We are trying to consummate a contract for the part of the expedition that I will pay for. Other people and institutions will cover the rest.” Beyster added that Venter has been recruiting money from big oil companies, including BP, the British-based petroleum giant, to fund his research. According to Beyster, Venter outlined his pitch at a June 2008 conference quietly hosted by San Diego real estate mogul Malin Burnham at the Evans Garage, a car museum owned by San Diego’s Evans family, owner of the Torrey Pines Inn and other local hotels. “Craig Venter told us that he thinks genetics offers the possibility of an unusual but ingenious answer to our energy problem,” wrote Beyster. “He believes that meaningful amounts of algae that is genetically engineered to create oil-like molecules can be grown. This was the bestseller of the conference, and he has been promoting the idea with the likes of Barack Obama, who feels that something drastic needs to be done to counter the devastating impact oil and gas monopolies are having on the economies of all the world’s countries.”
But some critics contend that Venter and his commercial backers will hijack the DNA code inside the microbial genomes for private gain. Pressure to appropriate the information for huge profits, they say, will grow in tandem with the world’s oil shortage. Venter and his colleagues insist that they are depositing the code they discover into a federally sponsored computer database known as GenBank, which is freely accessible to the world’s scientific community. But Jim Thomas, research manager of ETC Group, an Ottawa-based nonprofit that has emerged as one of Venter’s major critics, argues that Venter is uniquely positioned to exploit the data for private use.
According to Thomas, Venter’s very technical familiarity with the collection and sequencing of the DNA gives him a distinct advantage over his competition when it comes to “data mining” the raw stuff of life for lucrative medical and industrial applications.
“He knows the data intimately, right down to the bone,” notes Thomas. “He controls the computers and the very costly software algorithms needed to make sense of the code. He knows where to look in the chain for the most likely places where the useful pieces are going to be found. Nobody else has that advantage. To everybody else, it looks like spaghetti and would take years to decipher.”
Now that Venter has set his sights on that seven-acre parcel on a bluff above the Scripps Institution of Oceanography’s aquarium, UCSD officials have been eager to accommodate him. But some La Jollans aren’t as happy.
Venter’s proposal brought a sharp rebuke from Tim Lucas, a La Jolla resident who graduated in computer science from San Diego State University and works as a computer consultant. “This isn’t about science, it’s about making money via a commercial lease. UCSD is less interested in the research aspect of the project than they are in putting up the first of four or five buildings so they can collect big money.”
Lucas notes that the university’s master plan, adopted in 2004, originally called for the acreage to house purely academic pursuits, such as classrooms and basic research laboratories for the use of undergraduate and graduate students. “The problem is that UCSD has essentially all of a sudden rezoned it into a business research park,” Lucas argues.
“They had kind of a public meeting where they announced this project two years ago at the La Jolla Shores Association. There was a big audience there and people weren’t real happy, and a lot of them had a lot of questions that weren’t answered. Venter wasn’t there, but they had a bunch of Scripps Institution of Oceanography researchers there, saying they would get two or three fellowships out of this. I’m thinking, two or three fellowships? That’s not much.”
Other critics claim that the lab could present a risk to the neighborhood if genetically engineered artificial organisms should manage to escape from Venter’s test tubes. “People in San Diego should be very careful about how the university allows the laboratory to operate,” says Thomas, the ETC research manager.
“It may be perfectly safe, especially if no lab work goes on there, but when you are cutting and pasting the genome, you should be very, very concerned. There is the potential for extreme biohazard, and very special precautions must be taken to reduce the chance of escape of the artificial organisms that result. If not, no one can predict the disaster that might happen.” Similar qualms were expressed in September 2003, after Venter told his government sponsors that one of his nonprofits, the Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives, had created an artificial version of Phi-X174, a bacteriophage — a virus that could infect and kill the bacterium E. coli — proving that Venter’s team had indeed manufactured a fully working genome.