The research had been funded in part by the U.S. Department of Energy, and the department’s then-Secretary Spencer Abraham called a news conference in Washington to announce Venter’s breakthrough. Abraham’s spin was that future versions of Venter’s designer microbes could be engineered to break down pollution or produce energy.
But Hamilton Smith, a Nobel laureate who became Venter’s colleague and key scientist, introduced another potential, as Venter’s autobiography recounts:
“Although we had rehearsed several times what he [Hamilton] should and should not say, he seemed to forget all that when he was asked by one reporter about the possibility of making deadly pathogens.
“After Ham blurted out that ‘we could make the smallpox genome,’ I interrupted to point out that while that was indeed possible, it was known that smallpox DNA is not infective on its own, attempting to pour at least a little cold water on Ham’s speculation.
“Ham interjected, ‘But you and I discussed ways to get around that,’ and then turned toward me and said with a sheepish grin, ‘I probably shouldn’t have said that, huh?’
“Fortunately, our exchange did not go further than a paragraph in the New York Times and the coverage was mostly favorable.”
How successful Venter will be in trying to exploit for commercial gain the new technology of genetic engineering is anyone’s guess. Teams of scientists from around the world are feverishly trying to produce artificial life, and the DNA-sequencing technology that Venter helped pioneer is now in wide use. His critics say Venter cuts ethical corners, that he can be boorish in personal encounters. They say that he has used his nonprofit foundation for personal gain and cashed in at the expense of his company’s shareholders.
There is no doubt that Venter often gets what he wants, though the process can be as messy as the DNA stews created by his shotgun method.
Craig Venter was raised in Millbrae, California, a town just west of San Francisco International Airport. His mother was from the Ocean Beach neighborhood of San Diego, his father a Mormon from Idaho.
Part of his legend says he used to race airplanes down the runway with his bicycle. Venter recalls in A Life Decoded: “…as the DC-3 edged closer, I became giddy with anticipation. With my head down and my heart pounding I began to pedal the bike as hard as I could down the runway…” Venter tells more stories of his adventures with childhood friends at the airport. He concludes: “Then one day we rode to the airport and found that our racing days were over. A new fence had been erected around the runway.”
After high school, instead of heading off to UC Berkeley, like his brothers, he moved to Newport Beach and hung out at his grandmother’s house, enrolling in junior college and spending most of his time surfing.
In 1964, with the war in Vietnam starting to escalate, he joined the navy to avoid the draft and ended up in San Diego. He trained as a medical corpsman, assigned to the navy hospital in Balboa Park, where by his account he performed spinal taps and liver biopsies before heading out to La Jolla to surf every day at 3:00 p.m. The specter of Vietnam, however, was never far from his mind.
“Most corpsmen served as medics in combat, where they did not last long,” Venter notes in his autobiography. “The Vietcong would pay a bonus to any soldier who could show he killed a corpsman, usually by bringing back a trophy such as his ID card. After six weeks in the field, a corpsman had only a fifty-fifty chance of survival.
“But because I was highly valued by the doctors in San Diego, each month when the draft list came up, my name was absent — sometimes removed at the last minute. I ultimately avoided the draft for fourteen months before my name was finally posted.
“But the posting included a footnote: I was to be sent to the naval station in Long Beach, where I would run the emergency room. I was stunned, relieved, and delighted. The head doctor had a big grin and was pleased with his last-minute save.”
According to Venter’s account, jealousy between two nurses he was dating would do him in. “I was surrounded by navy nurses, but as an enlisted corpsman I was technically prohibited from dating them since the nurses were officers. That did not stop me, of course. First it was the head nurse. Then I became more interested in her friend — so interested, in fact, that I began to date her instead. This would turn out to be a big mistake.
“The head nurse whose friend I had been dating was annoyed when she found out that, once again, I had managed to avoid Vietnam. As I was leaving, she told me to get a haircut.” Venter told her to “fuck off” and headed out the door to the beach.
“Before I had even gotten to my motorcycle, two MPs arrested me and told me I was to be held for a court-martial. I was quickly found guilty of disobeying a direct order — my long blond hair was damning enough — and sentenced to three months in the brig at Long Beach. I faced hard labor, a criminal record, and a certain posting to Vietnam or a dishonorable discharge from the navy.”
Venter recalls that he was given two weeks’ leave before having to report to the brig to serve his sentence. He spent them at his grandparents’ house in Laguna Beach, where he hatched a plot to get out of his sentence by tampering with his orders.
As Venter recounts it, he discovered that he was carrying two sets of orders: the original orders sending him to work in the Long Beach hospital and the revised orders, following his court-martial, sending him to the brig. The new orders were attached to an envelope containing the old ones.
“This was 1966. Computerized records did not exist, so when military personnel moved to new assignments, they carried all their records with them. I thought about my high-speed court-martial and began to wonder if the copies of the orders inside the envelope were the same as the [version] on the outside.