COVER ILLUSTRATION BY ANDRÉ CARRILHO
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.”
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.
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.
“Did they change all my orders…? I decided to tell my uncle Dave about my predicament and ask whether I should risk tampering with the envelope. Though concerned, he was also amused and intrigued and brought my grandmother in on the problem.
“On examining the envelope she ordered Dave to boil some water on the stove. I could not believe it when she held the envelope over the steam. After a few minutes it was open and she handed it back to me.
“When I pulled out my records, I found untouched copies of my…orders to report to the medical station in Long Beach. After making certain all the paperwork was in order, my grandmother helped me reseal the envelope. All I had to do now was ‘lose’ the revised order attached to [the front of] the envelope and come up with a plausible reason that it was missing.
“Since I would be driving to Long Beach by motorcycle, I had a perfect excuse: I had dropped the envelope while flying down the highway, and the paperwork became detached. My uncle thought it was a good plan.
“For extra realism we went out in the street and began throwing the envelope around and sliding it along the pavement. We stripped off the remains of the [revised] order…”
Venter says his ruse worked, and he ended up working at the clinic, not doing time in the brig. But his service in Long Beach was only a temporary reprieve. Six months later, he was dispatched to Vietnam, where he served a particularly bloody tour of duty at the navy hospital in Da Nang during 1968’s Tet Offensive.
After he got out of the navy, Venter returned to California and in early 1969 enrolled at the College of San Mateo, a two-year community college. A year and a half later, he transferred to UCSD, where he studied under renowned biochemist Nathan Kaplan.
Far more seasoned than his 20-year-old undergraduate peers, Venter excelled at his studies. But he says in his autobiography that he was discomfited by a run-in with authority that resulted from student protests he had led in junior college.
Venter describes an encounter with the FBI during a 1970 demonstration against the Vietnam War. At a large student rally on the campus of the College of San Mateo, Venter took the microphone to urge a peaceful march into the city. Venter writes, “The next day the local newspaper carried a front-page photograph of me with the headline: ‘It’s Our School, Let’s Take It Over.’ ”
During the resulting march, he noticed a white van slowly following his group. “With its sliding door open, the men inside were continually photographing me and the other student leaders. I thought they were members of the press, but I learned later that they were police and FBI agents.”
Three years later, as a UCSD graduate student living with his first wife Barbara, a New Zealander, in a small Del Mar apartment, the FBI was still interested in him. “First, my home telephone suddenly began to sound different, with more background noise. Conveniently enough, a repairman seemed to be in constant attendance, sitting in a small booth on the pole immediately outside my second-story living room window.
“One day he showed up at our door as one of three FBI agents who insisted on interviewing us. At the end of a long discussion, they indicated that they had checks allegedly written by Barbara that had been linked to international money laundering. As well as needing a sample of her handwriting and fingerprints, they warned us that we had better be prudent or they would deport Barbara.”
As Venter recounts it, the FBI mysteriously dropped its surveillance, and he never heard from them again. (Ironically, he would later become the go-to guy for federal agents investigating the 2001 anthrax attacks.) And, despite his battle with the scientists of the federally sponsored human genome project, his J. Craig Venter Institute has grown into one of the federal government’s busiest biotech research contractors.
Venter was awarded his Ph.D. from UCSD in 1976 and moved east to become a junior faculty member in the School of Medicine at State University of New York at Buffalo. There the wife he’d married in Australia left him and moved to Texas, leaving behind their young son. Now a single dad, Venter bought a blue Mercedes, wore polyester leisure suits, and took up with one of his students, Claire Fraser.
“Claire and I now began to see each other and the student who dated her professor soon became an open scandal at the medical school,” Venter recounts in his book. “The situation was complicated by the fact that Claire continued living with her boyfriend, and I was still legally married, though separated from my wife.”
By 1983, Venter had grown tired of his university job. “Buffalo probably peaked in the late 1970s or early 1980s, after which its lifeblood of top scientists began to trickle away,” he writes. He and Fraser found jobs at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. It marked the beginning of Venter’s fabled love-hate relationship with the federal government and its myriad top-secret agencies.
Almost as soon as he arrived, two Pentagon representatives, dressed “in dark suits and pencil ties,” were waiting in his office. “They explained that they wanted to talk to me about using my research to detect nerve poisons and associated biological warfare agents in the field,” he recalls. “This request made sense, because the receptor proteins I was studying were the selfsame receptors that are the targets of nerve toxins. Despite the grim subject matter, I was relieved to hear that they were interested in my science, not me, and invited them to sit down.”
The work was eventually funded with $250,000 from the Department of Defense, Venter’s first full-fledged military contract. It also launched his interest in the human genome; within a year Venter was attempting to clone the adrenaline receptor gene found in the human brain. Other projects swiftly followed. In February 1987, Venter took delivery of his first DNA-sequencing machine, a ticket to the brave new world of the human genome.
By 1989, the Human Genome Project was starting up. The plan was to have the government pay for and organize academic institutions around the country to sequence DNA, the genetic code contained in each cell of the body, to produce a complete map of the human genome. The project was led by Nobel laureate James Watson, who, along with Francis Crick, had discovered DNA itself.
While at the NIH, Venter had perfected a way to shortcut the elaborate chemical and mechanical sequencing processes needed to cut up and create a map of the order of the molecules making up the strands of DNA. He tried to convince Watson that his way was best, but Watson wasn’t interested in working with Venter, dismissing his system as “sheer lunacy” and adding that “virtually any monkey” could use the method.
That sentiment, shared by many of Venter’s competitors, as well as a raging controversy over whether the government should file for patents on thousands of gene fragments that Venter decoded during his work at NIH, eventually led to his resignation in 1992.
Venter formed his first nonprofit research organization on June 10, 1992, calling it the Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR). He signed a $70 million contract with an outfit called HealthCare Investment Corporation, funded by a venture capitalist named Wallace Steinberg. Together they then created a private entity called Human Genome Sciences to exploit TIGR discoveries.
“Unlike Pasteur, few scientists in history have had the freedom, opportunity, and privilege to start their own independent research institute,” Venter later recorded in his autobiography. “Thanks to my single-minded drive to read genetic code and my great good fortune, I was given that chance with the Institute for Genomic Research.”
In addition to the money paid to his foundation, Venter would own ten percent of the private company’s stock. The idea was that if Venter’s institution sequenced enough genes using his fast-track process, some of the genetic code might turn out to have commercial value, such as in finding a cure for cancer. Then it could be licensed at a profit to pharmaceutical companies that would use it to develop lucrative drugs.
In the meantime, working with the federal Centers for Disease Control, TIGR sequenced the smallpox virus and made its genetic code public. “I believed that resurrection of the virus from the genome would be possible within a few years,” Venter later wrote. “I made this point to urge federal officials not to create a false sense of security by staging a public execution of the smallpox virus.
“Smallpox would continue to play a role in my life for some time to come, from discussions with the CIA and even to being the subject of a briefing to the president and his Cabinet in the White House.”
Then, in March 1993, at a conference in Bilbao, Spain, Venter met the collaborator who would help him change the history of DNA sequencing and set off the final race for the human genome.
Hamilton Smith was a professor at Johns Hopkins University who had won the Nobel Prize in 1978 for discovering so-called restriction enzymes, proteins that can snip DNA chains at certain precise molecular locations, allowing genes to be cut and pasted in myriad ways useful to teasing out their sequences.
Venter put Smith on his scientific advisory board. Later that year, while Venter’s commercial sponsors were pushing for marketable results, Smith introduced the idea of sequencing Haemophilus influenzae, a bacterium. Venter successfully used it to develop and test his shotgun sequencing methods.
The final results, revealed at a May 1995 conference in Washington, DC, drew an avalanche of publicity. It was the first complete sequencing of a living organism and as such became a sensation; but Venter’s backers were looking for a bigger and more immediate return on their investment, and in 1997 they severed the relationship.
But Venter wasn’t done. In 1998, he and yet another group of venture capitalists put together a private outfit they named Celera, with the principal purpose of beating the government-sponsored Human Genome Project. Venter took a five percent stake in the company, as did his Institute for Genomic Research, the operation of which he turned over to his wife Claire Fraser to run.
The deep pockets behind Celera belonged to PerkinElmer, a scientific instrument maker that wanted to create a large market for its newly developed gene-sequencing machine. By plunking down $300 million to fire up the race between Venter and his rivals at the NIH, the company guaranteed that it would make money selling the new devices to both sides of the contest, no matter how successful Venter’s efforts eventually turned out to be.
With banks of new sequencing machines running 24 hours a day, and by adding the sequence discoveries of the public project into his own database, Venter began to close in on a rough version of the human genome. He did not hesitate to announce his progress to the media, rubbing the noses of the federally funded researchers in his dust.
The much-vaunted decoding duel between Venter’s Celera corporation and the government’s program ended in a face-saving draw engineered by the Clinton White House in June 2000. Venter and Collins shook hands in the Rose Garden beside a beaming Bill Clinton. The argument over who, if anyone, was really ahead when the end of the race was called continues to this day, but Venter became the media darling of the hour. The New Yorker, Business Week, and Time all ran stories hailing him as a superhero of science.
Celera, Venter’s startup, did not fare as well, and as time went by, he fell out with the executives running the company, who saw little profit to be had from Venter’s pioneering efforts and wanted to take the firm in a different direction. On January 22, 2002, he was unceremoniously fired as president.
For his next act, Venter set up yet another nonprofit, this one called the J. Craig Venter Foundation, announcing that it would “change the world through genomics.” Meanwhile, he’d split up with second wife Claire Fraser in 2005, after living apart for a year. She’d been in charge of Venter’s first foundation, the Institute for Genomic Research, and when she departed after the divorce, it was merged into the new organization.
Venter claimed he would create artificial bacteria that would produce hydrogen energy from sunlight and water. He called this the Genesis Project. Mixing business with pleasure, Venter took to the high seas on his 95-foot yacht, Sorcerer II, collecting samples of newly discovered bacteria for his labs to sequence in search of something that might make money.
In October 2006, Venter announced he was opening a branch of his foundation in San Diego, in conjunction with Synthetic Genomics, Inc., a for-profit company he had founded the previous year to exploit ideas about using genetically altered bacteria to produce energy. By then he was already “partnering” with UCSD on a bio-computing project to support the sequencing efforts, using millions of dollars in federal grants to pay for the work.
That November, the university confirmed to reporters that it was quietly negotiating with Venter to build a laboratory and office building on UCSD property. The campus hoped to get the project approved by university regents by 2007 at the latest.
The public got its first look at the project in May 2007, though details of the negotiations remain cloaked in secrecy, when the university issued an environmental-review document in which it described the future building complex and roughly outlined the terms of its proposed lease with Venter’s foundation.
According to planning documents posted on the university’s website, a 45,000-square-foot building, along with 140 parking spaces, would be built on the 1.9-acre site in UCSD’s “Upper Mesa.” According to the plan, “A one- to three-story building…would terrace down from east to west and open up onto a pedestrian Belvedere Terrace overlooking the UCSD Park ‘Ecological Reserve.’ ”
Venter and UCSD hoped to have regents approve the plan by summer of 2007 and break ground that fall. University planners succeeded in having the coastal commission approve the proposal, and despite opposition from some La Jolla residents, the university’s legally required environmental review of the project became final in the spring of 2007.
But just as the proposal seemed destined for quick approval by the regents at their July 2007 meeting, it was pulled from the agenda without explanation. Officials later said that the terms of the deal between Venter and the university were still being worked out but refused to provide details.
The university denied a request made under the California Public Records Act for documents regarding the transaction, citing an exemption in the law for projects that are still subject to negotiation.
In the year since, the university has maintained its silence. Venter, on the other hand, speaks often of his plans for the building. He has shown architectural renderings as part of his promotional PowerPoint speeches to civic and scientific groups.
“Plans are underway to build a new, carbon-neutral laboratory facility on the campus of the University of California, San Diego,” Venter’s institute announced in a June 2008 news release. “If funding can be secured to build this state-of-the-art facility, it will be the first laboratory building of its kind in the U.S. and will house approximately 125 staff and scientists.”
The university’s continued secrecy has made it difficult to determine the role in the project of Venter’s commercial entity, Synthetic Genomics.
In the meantime, Venter, who has purchased a house in La Jolla, is, according to his autobiography, engaged to be married to his third wife, Heather Kowalski, his longtime public relations agent. She did not respond to repeated requests for details about Venter’s plans for and the present status of the institute’s proposed project at UCSD.