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Genetic engineering pioneer Craig Venter--whose foundation is set to build an elaborate new office and lab facility on a prime piece of property owned by UCSD, his alma mater--has made a good living out of high-profile endeavors, such as taking on the federal government in the race to sequence the human genome.

As befitting his status as a big-time rainmaker for local bio-tech research, Venter--who also runs the for-profit Synthetic Genomics on Torrey Pines, funded by a $600 million biofuels deal with ExxonMobile--has long been treated with reverence by San Diego's establishment.

Things were a little rougher for him in last Sunday's Washington Post, which ran a lengthy magazine piece entitled "Is Craig Venter going to save the planet? Or is this more hype from one of America’s most controversial scientists?"

The Post quotes Bruce Alberts, editor-in-chief of Science Magazine, as saying Venter "hypes whatever he does. ... He creates a storm around himself and often in ways that scientists like myself don’t consider appropriate.”

Alberts told the paper that Venter's announcement that he had created "synthetic cells" was “a vast overstatement."

“It was an important contribution, but as almost always when Craig does something, the statements he makes about it are maximally designed to get attention and are distorting of the science that he’s done.”

Other questions concern the advisability of manipulating the fundamental structures of life. Not surprisingly, Venter disagrees:

“I consider myself fundamentally more of an environmentalist than many of these environmental groups,” he told the Post.

“We have to come up with new sources of food, new sources of water, new sources of energy. Trying to ignore leading-edge science and technology as a means of getting there is an ostrich approach of burying your head in the sand.”

The piece also sheds a little light on Venter's private life in a La Jolla mansion.

"Divorced from [his second wife] in 2005, he married his longtime publicist, Heather Kowalski, in 2008. Kowalski, who is in her 40s, is a friendly, unpretentious woman who shares Venter’s love of sailing.

"Venter says his bouts with depression are a thing of the past: 'The science is working well. My family life is very nice. All those things make a big difference.'

"When I join the couple in his office at Synthetic Genomics, at the end of a day spent touring Venter’s labs, they are discussing the anticipated delivery of his new BMW 1600 GTL motorcycle, and making plans to ride together from San Diego to the Grand Canyon."

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