Meet the Decoders
Dr. Craig Venter
Dr. Craig Venter
Krulwich: Do you know anybody in this original group [of people selected to
have Celera decode their genome]? Any of your employees, or are they all found
Venter: No. Some of them are employees.
Krulwich: I have to ask, because everybody does: Are you one of them?
Venter: I am one of the volunteers, yes.
Krulwich: Do you know whether you're one of the winners?
Venter: Of the lottery? Or the losers? I have a pretty good idea, yes, but I
can't disclose that, and it's important not to in terms of -- because it
Krulwich: If you're the head of the company, and you're watching the decoding
of moi! That has a little Miss Piggy quality to it.
Venter: Well, any scientist that I know in this field would love to be looking
at their own genetic code. I mean how could you not want to, and work in this
field? So we had lots of volunteers of scientists that wanted to be amongst
Krulwich: Why is that? I don't know -- I'm trying to think. People ask you,
"Why do you go on television?" I think, I don't know, because I like to tell
the stories. I don't like the looking at myself part.
Venter: Then you wouldn't be interested in seeing your own genetic code?
Venter: Understanding how you differ from the rest of the six billion people on
Krulwich: If all my friends and neighbors could look at theirs, and we could
compare, but the thing itself?
Venter: Oh, you want to beat somebody? [Laughter.]
Krulwich: Well, I don't know. The chances are I'd lose as often as I'd win.
Right? No. I think I'm scared. I think I'm scared to see some kind of critical
reflection of myself written down in chemicals. You're not I guess?
Venter: Well, a lot of people do have that concern, and our concern is genetic
discrimination, that's part of why we went through this review process.
Krulwich: It's just like, "Oh, man, you've got six C's, and I only got five? I
don't know what that means, but I feel like maybe like that -- maybe I'd feel
like I'm sort of losing a track meet.
Venter: How can I ask other people to volunteer to do this if I was not
personally willing to do it myself? If other people leading this team were not
-- because it is a risk. Because it's a perceived risk. People have lost their
jobs. They have lost insurance, because of some of those minor genetic
Krulwich: How did this begin? Did you put a want ad on some -- I mean how do
you decide to get the donors?
Venter: Yes. The early part was very complicated in terms of human subjects and
getting the approval and all the kinds of process we have to go through, and so
the legalities of it. We set up a huge committee of some of the best ethicists
in the world, people familiar with the biology of ethnicity, experts on race,
use of human subjects in research, and we had to write all new rules, all new
terms, because nobody has ever sequenced somebody's genome before.
Krulwich: So the purpose of this is to take basically a read on a typical human
Venter: That's right.
Krulwich: Whether you're African or Norwegian or men or women or dumb or smart
or athletically able or no, it doesn't --
Venter: We didn't screen -- we screened for some of those things. We screened
for men or women. We sequenced three women and two men. And we tried to have
some diversity in terms of we had an African American, somebody with
self-proclaimed Chinese ancestry, two Caucasians and a Hispanic.
Krulwich: So you get kind of a human soup going?
Venter: Sort of, but they're kept individually. We track the data separately so
we know what the differences are with whom. Think about it, if you were here a
year and a half ago, you'd have been having blood drawn from your arm. It's
very simple, because every cell in our body has DNA.
Krulwich: Right. By the way, when the people were chosen, did they know that
their blood or their semen or their whatever was going to become part of this
project, or were they part of a much larger -- that it would only be some of
Venter: No. They had to go through a training course to know precisely.
Venter: We educated them about the genome project, what we were doing. What the
uses would be, and the potential risks. The potential risks are, you know,
having everybody know your genetic code, when people are worried about genetic
discrimination, worried about losing their jobs, losing their health
Krulwich: But this is like being elected Miss Universe in a way, right?
Venter: Except it's anonymous, like Miss Universe with a paper bag over her
Krulwich: I see. Interesting. Did people balk, and say, "No. I don't want to do
Venter: No. It's all volunteers and, in fact, we had a lot of volunteers, and
so some of the volunteers were here on the staff, and we also had an ad in the
Washington Post, which people responded to.
Krulwich: What did the ad say?
Venter: It didn't say very much. It just said, "Looking for subjects for human
use for DNA sequencing." We didn't do it on Page One, because we would have a
couple of hundred thousand people.
Krulwich: How many people respond to ads like that?
Venter: It's interesting isn't it? There was a large number of people that
Krulwich: Like tens?
Venter: No. It was in the hundreds.
Krulwich: Why do you need so many copies [of DNA from a single donor]?
Venter: Because we need a certain concentration of the purified human DNA to be
able to actually detect the letters of genetic code.
Krulwich: Because this stuff is so small that unless you have multiple copies,
exact copies, you might not be able to see what you're looking for?
Krulwich: How small is it? We all know that shape. You've got it all over the
office. You've got it on the lamps. You've got it on your carpet.
Venter: You can't see it with a microscope.
Krulwich: It's that small?
Venter: You'd need a very specialized electron microscope to get down to the
level to actually see a single strand of DNA.
Krulwich: The classic picture is I've got this little [inaudible], and there's
little ladders in there.
Krulwich: The distance between one side and the other is that a few atoms'
Venter: Yes. Yes. And so what we're determining is the order of all those
letters on that ladder. And there's three billion different letters on that
ladder. So the pictures everybody shows of the DNA structure is only about 10
Krulwich: So that's as much as you usually see -- a chunk?
Venter: That's right.
Krulwich: But the chunk that you're breaking it up into --
Venter: They're much larger than 10. We have pieces that are 2,000 letters,
10,000 letters, 50,000 letters and 150,000 letters. So we have different size
pieces, and they're very important and the end strategy for reassembling the
Krulwich: That's my next question, which is if you took a strand of DNA, and
went chop, chop, chop, chop, and get about 50 different pieces, then you want
to be able to put them together again in the right order?
Venter: That's right.
Krulwich: This will become a problem which we'll get to in a moment.
Venter: In this room [at Celera] the way we read the -- what we do in this room
is so we can read the letters of DNA, because even with the amount of DNA that
we get that's this amplification, we still need a stronger signal.
Krulwich: A strong signal means you need something you can see?
Venter: That's right. So we attach four different color fluorescent dyes, one
color for each letter of the genetic code.
Krulwich: So the color floats in and sort of stops where there's a G, and the
next one floats and stops where there's a T or something like that?
Venter: In fact, we add them on during the PCR [polymerase chain reaction]
process. As we make copies, we add in the single letters, and they get
incorporated by the DNA polymerase as we make more and more copies. The colors
get incorporated in to the DNA while we're making the next copy.
Krulwich: What do the colors tell you, that the last letter in the sequence is
something or the first letter is something?
Venter: It depends on the sequencing technology that's used, but it's usually
the last letter in a ladder of pieces that you see.
Krulwich: So it's called "the caboose effect?" I mean, you look to the end, and
there you should find if it says "green," you'll find a certain letter. If it
says "blue," you'll find a certain letter.
Venter: Yes. So with this sequencing technique what we do is every place
there's a new letter three billion times in the genome it stops at one of those
letters. So each place that it stops you know the letter that's on the end.
Krulwich: So you have three billion stops, three billion final letters, then
you add them all together, and you get the right thing?
Venter: In fact, we had to do it 15 billion times to get enough redundancy on
Krulwich: Is this as boring as it sounds if you're a thinking human?
Venter: If you're a thinking human you wouldn't. That's why we have robots that
do this. It was initially thought it would take 3,000 scientists to do this
over 15 or 20 years. We did it in nine months with about 50 people. The robots
would do the boring pieces, and the people would do the exciting ones.
Krulwich: So when this whole business got started, it's a business that seems
to me just from eyeballing it to be built from very finely-tuned
Venter: Exactly. And a very finely-tuned process, when you sequence DNA, you
only can get about 500 letters at a time. So the conceptual strategy -- how do
you get three billion letters in a row, when you're only getting 500 at a time?
-- you know, that's the challenge of the entire process.
If you could read down, that would not be the problem. If you could read pieces
of DNA in a million or a billion pieces long, but you can only get 500. So all
this is designed to feed into the information. So it's a giant jigsaw puzzle,
where we can deconvolute all of the information from tens of millions of
columns in the end, and the computer to put it back together again. So we use
very precise robots at each stage, to get very precise replication of this
whole thing, but the human genome, we did it 27 million times.
Venter [walking through Celera]: Actually here's -- we sort of have to catch
these as we do, so here's one of the robots, automatically loading samples. So
it's picking samples out of that tray and loading them into capillaries, and
we'll go through more.
Krulwich: How much is one of these?
Venter: These are the $300,000 machines.
Krulwich: These are $300,000. Who makes these?
Venter: Dr. Hunkapiller's company, my sister company.
Krulwich: Look how many you've got. You've got like a dozen of them.
Venter: We have 300 of these.
Krulwich: Three hundred?
Krulwich: Three hundred at three hundred G's, that's a lot of money.
Venter: Yes. But normally people would have to do all of this work manually, so
before this instrument, this was a manual process. Now here you're seeing this
robot rapidly lower the number of samples...[inaudible]... It's going to start
a run and start reading the DNA from the exact sequence of 96 pieces of DNA. In
a few hours it will start this all over again, and repeat the process.
Krulwich: When you went to the company, were you their first customer for this
Venter: When we decided to sequence the human genome and formed Celera as part
of this organization, this instrument was just a breadboard device. It didn't
look like this at all. It was just different pieces scattered on the
Krulwich: Oh, really? It was just a concept and all the parts had not been
Venter: That's right. But it was clear that it was a breakthrough concept in
terms of the automation, and more importantly the accuracy of the data that we
could get. The previous sequencing techniques were just a large slab gel,
you've probably seen pictures of these?
Venter: And DNA samples could cross over and run into each other, and you'd get
mixed data. This happened 30 or 40 percent of the time, which would make it
impossible with our mathematical approach to the genome to sequence it this
way. So we had to have much more accurate data, much more precise technology.
And it was clear that this new technology provided that. But it was not an
instrument. It did not look like those fancy boxes.
Krulwich: You must be like the machinist's ultimate customer? You can walk in
and buy on faith. You don't have the newfangled prejudice apparently, and you
even buy one when it's not actually assembled. You buy conceptually.
Venter: But it was clear and I had faith in the engineering capabilities of
Krulwich: And the fact that they're related to you does it not enhance your
Venter: At that time they weren't.
Krulwich: Oh, they weren't. Are you the only customer for the first year of the
run of these things?
Venter: No. In fac, that's what led to the genome race, because we had this new
technology, all our -- the teams in the government ran out to buy the same
Krulwich: Oh, my lord! And you know what's interesting is there's almost nobody
Venter: Yes. It's all automated.
Krulwich: So in the course of every minute, how many sequences could this room
Venter: We'll have to sit down and calculate it, but it's a very big
Krulwich: It is.
Venter: So each one of these machines every hour and a half or two hours does
96 samples. Each sample gives us around 500 to 600 letters, and we have that
going around the clock, 24 hours a day, on 300 machines.
Krulwich: So they're could be human genomes going through here, cat genomes,
dog genomes, mice genomes?
Venter: We've done them sequentially. We've done the fruit fly to prove that
this approach really worked, because it was so radical. Then we did humans. So
the fruit fly took us four months, while we were still scaling up. We only had
a few of these machines. If we were going to do the fruit fly today, it would
take two and a half weeks.
Then we did the human genome, the human genome took nine months, not 15 years,
but nine months. And when we were still scaling up the process. We just did the
mouse genome and finished up last October in four months. And the mouse genome
is essentially the same size as humans. So we've done now in four months what
just a few years ago we thought would take 15 or 20 years to do.
Krulwich: Is that the plan, to go through all of God's creatures?
Venter: There's tremendous benefit from doing this, because we need, in fact,
to compare our genetic code to those of other species, to help interpret it, so
we know what's conserved through evolution. What's unique to humans. What might
be in chimpanzees. What might be in mice.
Krulwich: If I'm a yeast specialist, and I find that this particular part of
the yeast genome, I don't know, allows the yeast to grow and healthy growth. I
mean, I notice that the yeast gets sick and doesn't grow, that it's because of
the problem right there. Is there a chance that I could find a dog or a human
or a chimp with a growth problem, and the gene for growth would be the same one
as the yeast?
Venter: Let me give you a very exact example. The enzymes that repair DNA,
they're called mismatched DNA repair enzymes. When we sequence a bunch of genes
from humans with the new technique that I developed in the early `90's, we
compared those back to yeast and E. coli and found almost an exact match
between the human gene and the ones from yeast and E. coli, so that the
genes and the proteins in our cells that repair DNA are virtually identical to
those in yeast that we use to make beer and bread with and in E.
Krulwich: You mean like those little things that fly through the air and make
beer beery. You know, if it's wild beer or yeast can be like baking
Venter: Like baking yeast.
Krulwich: So the-- Really?
Venter: All our functions are conserved through probably 4.2 billion years of
evolution. So comparative genomics, the technique, it doesn't matter whether
it's a yeast gene, a human gene, a bacterial gene, a fruit fly gene, the same
thing works, because we have the same chemistry, the same structure.
Krulwich: So if I'm trying to find out what does this particular stretch of DNA
do in a human, I could look it up for a mouse, look it up for a clam or look it
up for a yeast, and I might discover the answer to a human's?
Venter: Exactly. And that's why a fruit fly was important. We can do genetics.
We can do experiments on fruit flies. We can do experiments on yeast. It's not
so easy to do experiments on humans. So, in fact, it helps us to interpret our
own genetic code, to have the genetic code of the other species. The single
most important one that we have right now is the mouse genome. It's helped us
identify the human gene, because we only have a few hundred genes difference
between us and mice.
Krulwich: Because they're mammals?
Venter: So a few hundred, it's actually quite startling in terms of --
Krulwich: Because they look so different -- I mean I do.
Krulwich: So that's ultimately the business strategy then, right? I mean,
ultimately you want to be a business where people can look up a sequence, and
then see and understand anything.
Venter: That's right.
Krulwich [looking at machine]: Now this array of color that's popping up here
is telling us what?
Venter: That each one of these little boxes -- see that little green box
Venter: That means right at that position of that genetic code there's an A and
there's another A behind it. Then there's a red box and another red box, so
that's two A's and two T's.
Krulwich: So this is light bouncing off--
Venter: It's hitting--
Krulwich: So these little chemicals--
Venter: As the DNA runs down these very tiny fibers, they get separated one
letter at a time, and as they come off the end of the fibers, a laser beam hits
the DNA, activates the dyes, the dye flows, and it's read by a very tiny, very
specialized TV camera.
Krulwich: Oh, so these are TV pictures of lights bouncing off of almost
atomically small substances.
Venter: Except we have enough of it there, that's why we had to magnify the
amount of DNA, so there would be enough signal to actually see.
Krulwich: I see. How do we break out all of these colors into particular order?
This is a very hard order to read? Oh, there you go.
Venter: It's all done automatically by the computer. But here's this, looking
at a single lane. So now you can see clearly the peaks.
Venter: So there's just a blue one coming up, so that's a C coming up. You
could read this, and you could write this all down.
Krulwich: So blue, yellow, red, red, yellow--
Venter: So that's--
Krulwich: C, G, T, T, A.
Venter: So you could sit here every second and write down a new letter, but you
have to do it 96 times on this machine and 96 times on every other one every
Krulwich: This could be like the book of Revelation. I mean, the answers to our
questions are being revealed to us as bouncing light, color, and here's the
Venter: Yes. And it then converts that color peak into a letter. So we have a
computer program that just calls us says, that's a C, and when we transfer the
data over to the computer, we then will transfer out, convert this to color
into a 600-letter piece of genetic code.
Krulwich: And how many machines, this is a very big room?
Venter: There're 300 machines.
Krulwich: Three hundred machines somewhere up in this floor? And it's quite
Venter: Yes. This room needed three key things; it needed a massive amount of
air conditioning because the lasers on each of these machines generate a lot of
Krulwich: What's your air conditioning bill?
Venter: It's about a million dollars a year.
Krulwich: Really? A million dollars a year?
Venter: Yes. We've substituted electrons for people and--
Krulwich: Are you Potomac Power and Light's No. 1 customer?
Venter: They love us.
Krulwich: You and the Pentagon. Do you have electricity -- do you have to build
special conduits to get --
Venter: Yes. In fact we had to bring a whole new power grid in to provide
sufficient power to these buildings.
Krulwich: We really are made of interchangeable parts?
Venter: That's right.
Krulwich: Do you have to salt and pepper it or something before it makes the
transition from one creature to another?
Venter: Some of the genes going from fruit flies to mice to humans--There's one
that causes [inaudible] -- the fruit flies don't have eyes. We can take the
same gene from a mouse or humans and it will rescue the phenotype, and the
fruit flies will have normal eyes. So it's the same gene, the same function,
that's related to eye physiology. So that's how we got to be. The parts have
accumulated through these 4.2 billion years. Each one has gotten refined and
better and better. So, in fact, we may not have any human specific genes at
all. The 200 that aren't in mice may also occur in chimpanzees or some other
species. So there may not , in fact, be any genes--
Krulwich: Original to us?
Venter: Original to the human race.
Krulwich: So we're just a special mix of everything else?
Venter: It's the combination.
Krulwich: It's the image of God ... [inaudible] ... that we have to work with.
There must be a little extra or maybe not?
Venter: There's no evidence of that in the genetic code.
Krulwich: By the way, where do you rank in the
Venter: On the computing side or the DNA side?
Krulwich: On the computing side.
Venter: On the computing side, we've been told this is, if not the largest,
certainly one of the largest supercomputer facilities in the world.
Krulwich: Bigger than one of those atom-smashing kind of places?
Krulwich: Bigger than a war -- like in Moscow or America's war machines?
Venter: No. The ones in the Department of Energy, for example, for simulating
nuclear weapons blasts are much bigger.
Krulwich: Good. Where do you get then? You're No. 2?
Venter: We're in the top 10 or 20 in the world. And Compaq tells us we're
basically the No. 1 civilian computer.
Krulwich: So when you walk to a vendor of computers anywhere in the world, do
they start to dance or shiver?
Venter: [Laughter.] Well, in fact, it was very interesting. I'm not an expert
on high-end computing. I've had to learn this in real time as we did it, and I
did not know how to sort out-- You know, it's not different than claims from
car salesmen, you know?
Krulwich: Right. Exactly.
Venter: You have to test drive them, right? To really sort out--
Krulwich: Not if-- It's like, it's worse than that, because these are cars that
have never been driven by anybody.
Venter: That's right. So I'm an experimental scientist, so I gave the computer
companies a problem to solve. And then we ranked them by who could solve it,
and who could solve it the fastest, so we knew which computers were going to be
fastest for these purposes.
Krulwich: So when you bid out a job how many people are trying to build what
you want to have built?
Venter: Well, there's not really that many high-end computer vendors.
Venter: Well, it ended up being only two that could run the experiment and that
was Digital and IBM. Digital then being acquired by Compaq. And so we chose the
Compaq alpha chip for the high-end purposes, because it was going to be such a
Krulwich: So the Compaq alpha-chip salesman is in Hawaii right now and is just
recovering from his drunk probably.
Venter: [Laughter.] And he's been there for two years.
Krulwich: They [the huge number of computers at Celera] didn't break each
other? The idea of linking them together or the simple-- adding that much,
plugging in that many plugs didn't--
Venter: No. We were worried about the harmonics of having hundreds of machines.
We were worried even with all the robots, if they were synchronized, that the
building could start to sway or something.
Krulwich: Oh, really? But you were worried a little about-- Surely, it was a
Venter: Right. All the things that we used for sequencing the genome, none of
it existed in 1998 when we started this. The algorithms were all new. All the
technology that we saw processing the DNA samples -- we've developed all new
techniques here to do it at this scale. The instrument was a
Krulwich: And you don't have the worst-night-of-your-life problem? You don't
have like the worst-night-of-your life story from this?
Venter: Actually, we didn't. I had no trouble sleeping the entire period of
time, because we had five teams, some working on the supercomputer, some
working on the instruments, some working on the algorithms, some working on
processing the DNA samples. Some of the top scientists in the world, top
engineers in the world, their job was to actually work nights, so that I could
Krulwich: I see.
Venter: And as long as they were having sleepless nights, I felt fine.
Krulwich: You could sleep like a baby?
Venter: That's right.
Venter: But it was a system that, if any one of those teams failed, the whole
thing failed. So it was an interdependency, you know. You've got the best
computer in the world, and if there's not accurate, incredibly--
Krulwich: Did you hear about one?
Venter: Oh, we had problems all the time.
Krulwich: I mean, falling off the cliff kind of problems?
Venter: We had a few stomach-churning events. Not being clear whether there was
fundamental flaws in all of the pages of things. Nobody has done this before.
It's all new. And most processes take awhile to debug. There was no question in
our minds that this technique over time would work fantastically.
We set kind of a demanding time schedule. We said we would have this done in
2002, but we got it done in the year 2000. So even with all these problems,
with all the building company from scratch, new technology, new instruments. If
you'd asked me in early `98, could we sequence the genome in nine months, I
would have said no. Absolutely not, impossible.
Venter: I like these, these are our own computers. We needed such high-end
computers, we bought the computer company.
Krulwich: Before I even ask what they do, I really think they're
Venter: Aren't they beautiful?
Krulwich: I like the purple. I like the high -- is this necessary or is this
just for the excitement to look at part?
Venter: It's mostly cosmetic.
Krulwich: What do they do?
Venter: This now a Celera product; we bought [inaudible]. They designed their
own massively parallel computer chips for interpreting the genetic codes. So
these are custom-built supercomputers, literally hundreds of thousands of
Krulwich: The looked stacked to me, right?
Venter: Yes. You can have one or you can create an infinite stack. See we're
building one that has a million computer chips in it.
Krulwich: Now is this the part that you were mentioning before that the real
trick here is after you slice up all of the DNA, and after you've sequenced it
through, and you now know what all the constituent parts are, now in order to
get an accurate picture of a human or a dog or a yeast, you have to put
everything back together in the right order?
Venter: Imagine these beads like they have down in New Orleans for the Mardi
Venter: If each bead was a different letter of genetic code, imagine having
beads 500 feet long, you know, these necklaces 500 feet long, and then imagine
27 million of them piled on the floor, and your job was to go compare-- And the
order of the beads was different on every one. Your job is to go sort all of
those 27 million necklaces out in the right order.
Krulwich: This is the rough stuff, that's the hard stuff.
Venter: This stuff right there. That's what's very difficult for people to
understand, even senior scientists in this field. It's so beyond what people
can actually imagine. That's why everybody said this was absolutely impossible,
that you couldn't break the chromosomes apart and solve this jigsaw puzzle with
27 million pieces, when the pieces are these beads 500 letters long.
Krulwich: What do you do when you finish sequencing whatever you want to
Venter: It will never be finished, because scientists will be trying to
interpret our genetic code for 100 years. And we'll always be making new
discoveries with this information. This would be a field that would not exist
without this level of-- In fact, our problem is we need 10 times the compute
Krulwich: Than this?
Venter: Our biggest problem the scientists find over here is the not enough
compute cycles for all the experiments we want to do. So if we had a ten-times
bigger computer, there's even that much more to do. So biology for the first
time in history has surpassed the level of compute capacity.
This our hard drive. These are our hard drives. So we have very fast optical
links. You know the hard drive on your computer? This is the hard drive for our
computer. It's over 100 terabytes of data.
Krulwich: What is a terabyte?
Venter: A terabyte is a thousand gigabytes.
Krulwich: And a gigabyte is --
Venter: Is a thousand megabytes.
Krulwich: You're being coy here. What's a megabyte?
Venter: Okay. It's a million bytes.
Krulwich: So how many zeroes are there behind that one, the big number?
Venter: Well, with a million -- think of your salary-- [Laughter.]
Venter: The one with six zeros.
Krulwich: Yes. But now the biggest number, that tera thing, that's like--
Venter: For each level you add three zeros.
Krulwich: How many zeros do we come up with for the capacity of the whole
Venter: The capacity of the whole room in terms of 100 terabytes, so oh, 14
zeroes, if I'm doing it right on the spot here.
Krulwich: Fourteen zeros, that's a lot of power.
Venter: Yes. So let me show you our main computer. That's in the next
Krulwich: Oh, there's another room?
Venter: This is still the hard drive.
Krulwich: So this is the calculation part.
Venter: There's two computers that we used. This was the latest one. This came
to us at the last minute. This is called the Wildfire computer. It's a new
supercomputer from Compaq. So this was a key part of the human assembly. But
here's the main computer that we used. It's this whole set here.
Krulwich: This whole wall?
Venter: This whole wall. So each one of these boxes can hold five computers.
Each of these computers would be more than enough to run any university, any
major department. You can see we have a lot of these.
Krulwich: Now when you have one of these Master-of-the-Universe moments, which
I'm sure you do from time to time, called, "Look what I've built," is the
computing power that you have assembled as much of a satisfaction to you as the
knowledge running through it?
Venter: To me, this was an absolutely critical tool that we had to have to get
it. Perhaps because my knowledge of computing is not sufficient to really
appreciate all of the brilliance that went into this, but to me the goal was to
get the genetic code. We couldn't do it without this. So I appreciate the
technology, but we have people who live inside these computers, this is their
life, and they would feel differently about it.
Krulwich: Right. So the eloquence of this-- If it were a hamster running on a
wheel, that it could turn out the same amount of information, that would be
cool with you?
Venter: Yes. That would be a lot cheaper.
So each of these have four of the big alpha chips in it, and I can show you one
of these later. And so we have literally hundreds of alpha chips in all of
these computers. And this is a network. We can address things on the control
room, all of the different bars changing. We can send a process to one of those
chips, or we can use all of them together. For assembling the human genetic
code, it took 20,000 CPU hours. So a CPU hour would be using one of those chips
for an hour. So we did it on one shift.
Krulwich: I'm trying to think of what other project would take up that kind of
Venter: Simulating nuclear weapons blasts would certainly have done that and
bigger. Trying to do massive chaos and weather predictions on a global scale
could do it, but not much. It's a very big calculation. We've now done it
several times to make sure that it's done right. But just think if we had the
ability to sequence the genome of all six billion people on the planet, if each
one took us 20,000 hours to reassemble, and that's not even to compare them, to
understand them. You have to start to understand when you get to these huge
numbers why computing is the limitation.
Krulwich: If you wander around all those machines, you could think, someone
famously said, that monkeys could do this; it just goes on. I mean, once you've
got the machine set up it just takes care of itself. So let me ask you about
the grainy part of it. What is the hardest part of this?
Venter: I think having the whole thing come together and actually work well.
Each of the components have their own problems, from the technology working
right, the engineer designing it right, and all the things working. My role and
my job in this was really -- I was the integrator. I can see large pictures
better than many, and don't have the skill sets to do all these other things
that some of the team does.
Krulwich: But you seem to be a pretty good picker, though. You seem to be able
to find talent when you need something done.
Venter: I've had a philosophy of just hiring the best people and then giving
them complete license to go do their job. I don't micro-manage. We get the best
people, people who have been working 18 hours a day for the last two years to
do this. You know, people are not driven by the excitement of what we're doing.
Obviously, they wouldn't select to come here. But each step is very complicated
on its own, so we need the world's experts. If we don't have the best
computers, if we don't have the -- you know, we have a Nobel laureate, Cam
Smith, who with his own hands makes these libraries at the first step. If
that's not done with incredible precision, where the DNA really represents the
species or the humans that we're sequencing in a completely random fashion, it
can never be put back together again.
Krulwich: Let me see if I understand metaphorically what the math is doing. If
I took a dictionary page, just a random page out of the dictionary, and I
ripped it up into many many pieces and they're in -- I took a piece that says,
I don't know, it has the word "verb" in it, a very common word in the
dictionary, and a little bit of something on the left, and a little bit of
something on the right. The question is, could I reassemble the page? Is there
some way that I would know how to tuck that fragment and all the other
fragments right back in the same order? Is that the first piece of
Venter: It's a good way to think about it. So you can think of a bacterial
genome as maybe one page of the dictionary. And the way you do that, you don't
just take that one page. Maybe you Xerox the page, and you shred randomly all
the Xeroxed pages differently. So in some cases you're have "verb" with a part
of a word on the right-hand side; some pages you'll have "verb" with another
word on the left-hand side.
And so what the computer does is searches through these. And it will find
"verb" and line up all those "verbs," but only a few of them will have the
right stretches on both sides. And eventually you can, by doing these massive
comparisons, find the exact right order, because the pieces on either side
place it precisely on that page where it goes.
It's the same thing with the genetic code, only instead of the alphabet that we
have for our language, the genetic alphabet is only four letters, and the words
are roughly 500 letters long. So we're dealing with stretches that are 500
letters long with just four different letters in them.
Krulwich: But the principle is the same. You take a page, rip it up, and then
you copy that page and rip it up and another copy and another copy. And
basically the computer gets used to finding comparisons so they can imagine the
Venter: So the randomness is the key part, because each page gets torn
differently. So in some cases it will fractionate here and in some cases it
will fractionate here.
Krulwich: So you're sitting there thinking, gee, we could reassemble a whole
creature from all those little parts?
Venter: That's right.
Krulwich: And the reaction was?
Venter: No we can't; it won't work.
Krulwich: Then you do it and then what's the reaction?
Venter: It was buried. I mean, I think most scientists in the world got just
very excited about it, seeing the complete genome of a free living organism and
all 1,800 genes laid out. In fact, it was overwhelming for most of us trying to
understand how that cell functioned looking at this information for the first
time. My critics said, "Well, he lucked out. It worked for some reason with
this type of organism; it won't work with the next one."
A few months later we did the next one and a few months later we did the next
one. We did the first three in history in a matter of a year or so.
Krulwich: Now I see there's one thing we have, which is this big -- is the
fruit fly part of his party?
Venter: Yes. But that didn't come until much later.
Krulwich: So you're just scaling up your organisms; is that what's
Venter: Well, we found that we could get this information very quickly, and we
started just making -- it wasn't planned. We made such major discoveries
looking at this information that we just kept switching from organism to
organism; actually fascinating organisms.
We found one from the bottom of the Pacific Ocean that was in one of these
hyperthermal vents. At our body temperature it's frozen solid. It comes to life
about 80 degrees Centigrade -- or about 60 degrees Centigrade. At 85 degrees
Centigrade, that's its optimum for growth, and it's happy in boiling water
temperatures. And it makes everything it needs for life from carbon dioxide and
uses hydrogen as an energy source. Its genome uses the same letters of the
alphabet, a lot of the same constructs, but most of the genes were new. Science
had never seen anything like them before.
We did another organism that can take 3,000,000 rads of radiation. Its
chromosome gets blown apart into little pieces, and over 12 to 24 hours--
Krulwich: What are you, wandering around the zoo of little creatures and making
-- let's try this one, let's try that one?
Venter: Exactly. It's fascinating. We're uncovering the basic concepts of life
by doing this.
Krulwich: All right. So let's scale this up. If you get to bigger and more
complex creatures, I believe you now introduce another, even more ambitious
technique. Tell me if I'm -- I don't know what this is called.
Venter: No, it's the same.
Krulwich: Same technique.
Venter: Except it's a different scale. And scale is important.
Krulwich: So I don't actually have to go and rip up my entire dictionary
Venter: Well, we were dealing with one page of the dictionary. And now we're
expanding to the whole dictionary for Drosophila, and the human genome
you can consider the Oxford Dictionary.
Krulwich: But it's the same deal. So on a human being if you rip up the entire
dictionary so there's trillions of fragments all over the place, and you're
stuck with this word "verb" -- a little bit of something here and a little bit
of something here -- you had the notion that you could not only find where this
particular fragment goes, but you could put it in the right order for the
entire dictionary. Think how weird that is.
Venter: But there has to be a single mathematical solution for it or it
wouldn't have been a unique page in the first place.
Krulwich: Yeah, known to God perhaps. But for a human to assemble it from all
of its little fragmentary parts --
Venter: But the principles are no different than reassembling the dictionary.
If every page of the dictionary was the same with just maybe one or two little
differences, it would probably be much harder, if not impossible. But each page
of the dictionary is unique. Each part of our genome is unique. We would not be
alive if there was not a single mathematical solution for our chromosomes. We
would just be scrambled goo.
Krulwich: I know. But you're saying that belief in math led you to believe that
you could climb this mountain?
Venter: And I'm not a mathematician. It was belief in the techniques. I'm an
experimental scientist. We did the experiment; it worked. We did it again; it
worked. We did it on another species.
Krulwich: But I could say to you, "Look, I can climb a hill." Then you could
take me to a mountain, and I could look at the mountain, and I'd say, "Well,
maybe I can climb the mountain." Then you could take me to Everest, or you
could take me to something on Mars that's three times the size of Everest. I
might lose the ambition to make the climb.
Venter: You have to have different tools for each one. And so we had to develop
a whole new tool set to do the Everest project. We couldn't do it with the same
tools that we used for climbing the hill. But the principle is exactly the
Krulwich: You act as though you thought that you just plunged in with the
certainty that you would come out with an accurate read of the human being. But
the truth is you didn't know; you just felt you had to try?
Venter: We didn't have -- all the tools that we used in the end didn't exist
two years ago. Necessity is sort of the mother of invention in our experiences,
if there is a problem. That's why it helps to have, and it's critical to have,
the top people.
Krulwich: Were you scared, or did you think somehow that you -- why weren't you
scared, or were you?
Venter: I'm not afraid to take risk. I mean, I said at thee beginning that
either this would be one of the most spectacular success stories in history or
the biggest flame-out in history. There was clearly a risk element to this. In
fact, when I look at all the things that could have failed and could have gone
wrong, it's stunning perhaps that it did work as well as it did.
Krulwich: One of the things that's a problem, I think, for humans is the genome
itself is a little bit more complicated than it might be for some of those
early bacteria, because maybe there's a working part, a recognizable part, and
then a lot of kind of stuttery stuff, and then something recognizable again. So
there's like these -- we're built with a lot of garbage in us to begin with, so
it may not be as easy.
Venter: In fact, there was a key experiment we did. And so we didn't jump from
the microbial genomes to human. We did the experiment to test whether all this
was really feasible. And we did the fruit fly. So that was the key
demonstration project that not only convinced me and convinced our team, but
convinced the rest of the world that this would really work.
Krulwich: The fruit fly is much closer to us than the bacteria?
Venter: Yes. And in size the bacteria is 1.8 million letters; the fruit fly was
120 million. So it was a big increase in the scale of the experiment. The same
critics were certain the fruit fly wouldn't work.
But when I look back, and I'm asked, what were the key experiments, there were
three. It was developing the EST [expressed sequence tag] method itself that
led to the next step. The Haemophilus genome and the fruit fly genome
were the two really key steps. If the fruit fly genome had not worked human
would have been impossible. The fruit fly genome working so spectacularly gave
everybody absolutely immense confidence that it was actually doable. Some of
the people on my own team probably did not believe it until that experiment was
Krulwich [asking about Venter's experience working in a Navy field hospital in
Vietnam]: You tell a story about two kids who come in. One holds on for about
two weeks and the other not. Tell me that story.
Venter: Well, I learned that there was more to medicine than just physical
situations. There was one young man who had this massive gut wound. And the
surgeons basically said that by morning he won't survive. But this guy so
wanted to live that just through sheer determination he survived for a very
long time. He survived there for a couple of weeks in my ward.
Krulwich: Where were you? You were right with him?
Venter: Yes. And then he was Medivacced to the Philippines finally, because
people were just stunned that he was able to do so well. Eventually he died
because he couldn't overcome at some stages the real physical damage that was
There was another soldier who was slightly older -- he was in his 40's -- with
a fairly mild wound that he should have survived. And basically he gave
Krulwich: What did that teach you?
Venter: That there was much more to us than just the physical aspects of
things. The human spirit plays a very important role in what we do and what we
Krulwich: So being a fairly willful person yourself, there's going to be a
double lesson in it. Maybe it pays to be tough, or it pays to refuse to give
up, or it pays --
Venter: There is no question about it.
Krulwich: So that's-- Seeing the kid who lasts and lasts and lasts became wind
at your back ever since in some way?
Venter: It was clearly motivating. I mean, he was clearly representative of a
lot of -- there were an awful lot of casualties there. But most people just
wanted to go home.
Krulwich: Is this in some sense, when you're young, and you see a lot of people
die, and they all could be you, do you then feel that you sort of owe them
cures, cures that they'll never get? Or am I over-romanticizing?
Venter: The motivations become complex. That's certainly a part of it. Also I
think surviving the year there was -- I'm trying the think of the best way to
put it. I felt it was a tremendous gift. I think it more than anything made me
risk-adverse. You know, it's one thing when my critics now are shooting
criticisms at me. It's very different when somebody is shooting rockets at you.
It sort of puts things in perspective, I think. If you're not in that situation
you can never truly have that perspective.
Krulwich: The question is, this thing we were just discussing does this impulse
in you account for your impatience? I mean you were sitting there, raring to
go. By your description, you've got the loudest motor purring all the time.
Venter: It's hard to actually know. I'm driven to want to accomplish something
perhaps because of the events in Vietnam that really influenced my life. I've
been worried at every stage of my life since Vietnam that I would die before I
accomplished what I wanted to. And so I felt this sense of urgency constantly,
this sense of timing, not being willing just to sit around.
Krulwich: Why die? Because you saw other people die or because you were worried
that you would get a disease?
Venter: No. Because you learn the finality of life. And I knew that there was a
finite period that I had. My own father died at age 59 from sudden cardiac
death, so I knew that even potentially genetic factors might have it be a
shorter period of time, but it was-- It didn't matter whether it was going to
be 30 years or 80 years, that's a very short period of time.
Most people, I think -- or I certainly did when I was sitting on my surfboard
at age 18, felt a certain amount of immortality. I think, as far as I know,
most young people feel that way. I stopped feeling that way when I was
It's probably a very good lesson in terms of, you know, not going forward with
this false sense that things really go on forever. So I felt it was really a
finite period of time to do something, and a chance to really accomplish
something was far more important to me than building some social structure to
come out of a competitive hierarchy as, you know, the top professor in an elite
school of guys that went to elite schools all their lives. I wanted-- It was
far more important to me to do things.
Krulwich: Is there something lurking inside you like, you know, these guys go
to these Ivy League schools and sort of have a head start, and you don't like
Venter: Not at all. In fact, I think I've proven that it doesn't matter. It
matters what you do, so there're no excuses. It's based on your own intellect,
your own skill set, and I think--
Krulwich: Why do you get in so much trouble all the time? Why are you fighting
Venter: I am competitive, but when the social order doesn't allow you to make
progress, and it doesn't for most people, I said, "The hell with the social
order. I'll find a new way to do it." And so I don't think it's threatening to
some of the people in this field that I sequenced the genome; it's that their
social order that they spent a long time establishing so they knew who was at
the top of the tree and who wasn't, I just said, "I don't like your tree,
because it's just going to block us from making progress."
When we heard "No" from NIH that we weren't going to fund your research,
because it wouldn't work, a lot of people said, "Okay. It won't work. I'll go
drive cabs or do something else with my life." I knew it would work. I think
that happens to a very large number of people, but very few get the chance to
break through and actually prove it.
Krulwich: Let me talk about the business of this. Just the word "business"
already got a lot of people upset way back, back in the day-- You apparently
have a good business sense, but do you consider yourself a businessman?
Venter: No. In fact, I still sort of bristle at the term for some reason. My
goal in life wasn't to make money. I've been trying to find ways to enjoy some
of the money that I've made, but--
Krulwich: You got your boat.
Venter: Yes. But it was never the goal; it's been a nice side effect, and, in
fact, it's led to my philosophy for business. I'm in business, because it was a
necessary part of doing this. The government was offering me a $300 million
dollar grant to sequence the human genome. You know, Applied Biosystems, which
had developed the technology that everybody in the world uses for genome
sequencing, wanted to expand its business into the information side and offered
me the opportunity and the means to sequence the human genome, but they wanted
to build a new business to do it.
But my philosophy is if you do good science, just as if you do good medicine or
create new medicines, profits will follow. They have for me personally
without-- My focus is not on making money. I've made money by just trying to do
world-class science. That's the goal that we're setting at Celera. If we do
world-class science and create new medicine paradigms, the money will more than
follow at a corporate level and at a personal level.
Krulwich: If you bristle at the word businessman, that might be because in some
part of your soul, you may think as some do, that the business of science and
the business of business are fundamentally incompatible for one simple reason:
that the business has to sell something, and the science has to learn or teach
something. And that sometimes learning and teaching and business just can't
Venter: But in the case of developing treatments for disease, they more than
fit. I think I bristle at it because it's used as an attack, used as a
criticism. In this case, if the science is not spectacular, if the medicine is
not spectacular, there will be no profits.
Krulwich: So you're going to go and treat the whole tree of life as a sort of
knowledge base, and you're going to ask yourself, you and your company, what is
a tree? What is a clam? What is a human? And then if I'm interested in any of
those creatures or anything about the relationships between them, I will go to
you as sort of the library of that, and pay you a subscription?
Venter: That's part of the business model. And that's the part that's going
extremely well right now.
Krulwich: What does it cost by the way to be a subscriber?
Venter: It depends on who you are. If you're a pharmaceutical company, it's in
the millions of dollars. If you're an academic researcher, it's a few thousand
Krulwich: Is this a Yahoo kind of thing if you get there first, and no one else
will follow, you hope to be the portal for this kind of stuff?
Venter: Yes. Not from just getting there first, the first mover advantage is a
tremendous benefit. Building the integration, building these tools, could
somebody else get there if they went out and spent one or two billion dollars
right now, building all of these databases and technical capabilities? Sure.
Not too many people are likely to do that.
Krulwich: So you want to be a drug company?
Venter: I'm not content to sit back and just hope somebody else will do that.
Krulwich: So you want to be an encyclopedia -- a wannabe pharmaceutical company
in the front room? So then if you're a pharmaceutical company with an
encyclopedia in the back room?
Venter: What we're trying to is drive medicine forward in two ways. We're
making the information and the tools broadly available to make the other people
come up with discoveries faster. We're trying to set up a massive program.
We're going into proteomics. We're setting up to do over a million protein
sequences a day -- that's more than have been done to date in history -- to
understand the next stage in the human genome. The genetic code--
Krulwich: So if you find a really interesting protein, you could maybe make
some money from, are you going to try to own it?
Venter: Are we going to patent it?
Venter: A patent is not ownership. It's the right to commercially develop
Krulwich: Are you trying to do that?
Krulwich: How can you be selling information to drug companies and being a drug
company at the same time?
Venter: They're not incompatible.
Krulwich: They aren't? If I were a drug company, I'd begin to worry if I saw
you looking through the information and grabbing some of the good stuff.
Venter: They have all the same information at the same time we do, that the
rest of the world does. Here's the notion that it's very simple to do. The
information content that we have in our genetic code is so vast, there're not
enough scientists alive today with enough resources to make more than a tiny
dent in it. It would be phenomenal if everybody could use it, and it was as
simple as whoever has it first, that's all there is to it.
Our biology is complex. Why are the drug companies really struggling to come up
with massive new treatments? Why has breast cancer therapy not really changed
dramatically in the last several decades? Biology is complicated. Solving these
diseases is very complicated. So the worst thing morally and in terms of
changing medicine would be for any company to try and tie up the information
just for their own purposes, because there's no way anybody could use more than
a tiny fraction of it. So that they are not incompatible.
Krulwich: If I have a sick person who's got some genetic illness, let's make it
cystic fibrosis or something. If this person is sick, I could-- I even know the
reason why he is she is sick, because I can say, "Oop! There's the mistake.
This person has cystic fibrosis, because I see it in the genes." I can either
fix the gene or failing that, could I fix the protein?
Venter: Let me deal with your basic premise, because it's wrong.
Venter: But it's what most of the scientific community has believed for the
last decade or so: that we know these genetic changes in specific genes, and we
know which diseases they cause. And this has been-- We say the analogy is like
looking under the lamppost for your lost keys. You know, why do you look under
the lamppost? It's because that's where you can see. So if you measure the
genetic changes in people with diseases, you say, "Ah! There's this absolute
correlation if you have these changes, you'll have the disease."
But that's not measuring the whole rest of the population. When you measure the
rest of the population, you find that many people have those same exact genetic
changes, but they don't have cystic fibrosis. Some of those people with those
same changes get chronic lung disease. Some get chronic pancreatitis. Some just
get male sterility with the same changes. Some get asthma, and the latest paper
that was published just late last year was that some people get chronic
sinusitis. Again with genetic changes in the same gene. And more disturbing to
a lot of people is that a number of molecules have no disease
Krulwich: And still have the same--
Venter: And still have the same changes.
Krulwich: I call them "mistakes." You call them "changes."
Venter: Well, in the person with no disease, what's the mistake?
Krulwich: Got it. Yeah. Okay. I didn't know that.
Don't you think, though, that over time with enough data and enough instant--
enough experience, that we'll be able to say, "Sixteen repeats of this equals
that disease at an 80 percent probability between your 40th and your 55th
year," is it that kind of thing?
Venter: With rare diseases-- In the case of Huntington's disease, which is a
rare exception to the rule, yes.
Krulwich: But only then?
Venter: Even then it was a probability still. I mean the probabilities will
change to, you know, a fraction of a percent to maybe 50 percent likelihood or
something. But it's all these other levels of the information that provide our
degree of complexity. How could the [inaudible] in some cases cause cystic
fibrosis, in other cases asthma? It's because of the different protein-protein
interactions that take place in the development of the cells, and the
development of our body.
You get a little spelling change in another protein that interacts with that
[inaudible] channel could totally change the developmental cycle. Environmental
elements could affect it as well. You know, we're products of the environment
and our genes.
Krulwich: So genes will always produce certain proteins. That's their job, and
that's expected. But then the proteins will have a conversation with the
other-- and with life--
Venter: That's right.
Krulwich: And you can't be sure of the outcome.
Venter: That's right.
Krulwich: So what kind of business could the protein business be? Messy, messy,
Venter: Absolutely. You could not do it without having the human genome done
first. That's one of the reasons why we wanted to get the genome done, so we
could understand the next level of biology, trying to understand-- It may not
even be a single protein that we can say, "This will tell you whether you have
It may be this complex array that we see these proteins change all the time,
and this indicates an early indication of colon cancer. Those early findings,
if we can make them and make them routinely, will have a profound impact on
medicine. Colon cancer can be treated.
Krulwich: You mean you're going to watch proteins behave and sort of look at
them like Balanchine, learn their ballet? And then you'll learn whether they're
off a step or two or whether you can get them back into shape or--
Venter: We're in the process of sequencing all the proteins in the blood, in
the urine, in spinal fluid as well as the different tissues. But blood and
urine are the most important, if we can do easy diagnoses.
When a cell dies-- If you have colon cancer and a cell dies, the proteins
associated with that colon cancer cell, some of them will end up in the
bloodstream. With the new technology and because we have the genetic code now,
we can now for the first time in history do a comprehensive survey of what's in
your bloodstream, what proteins are there.
And if we do these in large numbers of people, we look at people with colon
cancer and people without, then we find ones that associate with being able to
predict whether you've got colon cancer or not. So we need this huge
throughput, the same scale that we did with the genome, only it's going to be
in terms of protein sequences.
But it needs even 10 times larger compute capacity than we already have. And it
needs the complete accurate human genetic code to do the interpretation. That's
one of the reasons why we're in a hurry to get the genetic code. It enables all
these next steps in biology. And if we find those, we'll turn these into new
clinical diagnostics, new clinical treatments.
Krulwich [referring to the dual announcement with Francis Collins of the
Human Genome Project about the sequencing of the human genome]: Now let's take
you to the White House. Did they give you the full treatment with the guys with
the Marines and the gloves, playing violins on the staircases and everything,
because it was a daytime affair?
Venter: It was a very terrific occasion. I've discussed on various occasions
the genome project with President Clinton. He was very excited about it, very
supportive of it. He wanted to be involved in the announcement of the
completion. There was this competition going on with some of his employees at
the time, and it was not the best for science, or for the public.
Although looking back, it had this odd sense of hoping to interest the public
in the genome. So more people know about the genome probably because of the
so-called genome wars and race than they would have if we just said, "This is
all great. Let's try to explain it." But he helped bring about a
Krulwich: Did he want this detente?
Venter: Yes. I think he very badly wanted it and helped bring it about from his
side. Regardless of pressure from his bosses, if Francis Collins also didn't
want to have it, we probably wouldn't have had it.
Krulwich: Did you get like a call saying, "Please come in peace?" or whatever
way they signaled it?
Venter: It was a long, arduous negotiation process for us to decide, you know,
whether we could actually achieve some sort of detente.
Krulwich: Were you arguing about who stands next to whom? Who speaks
Venter: No. We were trying to do this regardless of whether there was going to
be a White House event. I think the White House sort of held it out as a
carrot, "If you guys can get your act together, it would be really nice to have
a big joint announcement." But it was never a promise or a guarantee.
I think because we made good progress, my understanding is that the president
viewed the fact that the genome was sequenced during his administration, and
that it was a historical event, that it was worthy of such an
But it was quite interesting in terms of all the things that went up to it at
the end. It was a situation where I was being given a live open microphone at
the White House in the East Room, with the president there and the prime
minister of England linked in from video on live international television. The
president was a fairly brave man in the sense that--
Krulwich: He didn't know what you were going to say.
Venter: They had a rough idea. They called multiple times, asking for a copy of
my presentation. But I felt with the opportunity that I was my own
speechwriter, and I decided it was an opportunity for me to say something very
personal about what I was doing, and I was still in the process of doing that
up until the morning that I went down to the White House.
Krulwich: The last question about this. The president used a rather interesting
analogy. He said he recalled the moment when Tom Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson
came and sat down I believe in that very room with the two men he had sent
across the United States to open up the west. Did you think that was an apt
Venter: I thought it was an interesting one. And what I learned afterwards is I
have a family linkage to one of those early explorers.
Krulwich: Lewis or Clark?
Venter: I think it was Lewis. It wasn't a real close relative. [Laughter.] I
wish I'd known it earlier. I would have included it, and I would have thanked
him for mentioning one of my relatives.
Yes, we're explorers of the unknown. In fact what people don't realize is how
little of science really explores the unknown. This is one of those pretty rare
situations where it was. We had really no idea where it was going to take us,
what we'd find when we got there. In fact, whether we'd get there at all. So I
don't think it's been unlike other great explorations, because it was just into
the inner universe instead of the outer, physical--
Krulwich: Have all the things that have happened to you from Vietnam right to
this moment, which goes on, was there any moment or any turn that gave you a
bigger thrill than all the rest?
Venter: Probably the single-- You know, making these discoveries, having a
successful completion is incredibly satisfying and incredibly enjoyable, more
so than any outside affirmation could ever be. In fact, if that wasn't true all
the criticisms I've gotten in this past decade probably would have destroyed
me. But doing the first genome in history was so truly enjoyable, and just the
thrill of making that level of discovery, and the same with the human genome
and the Drosophila genome, I think it's-- I've just been allowing myself
recently to think about it and enjoy some of the level of some of the
discoveries that we've made, and--
Krulwich: Are you talking about beauty and elegance, or are you talking about
meeting a challenge? Are you talking about opening a door?
Venter: All of the above. It's, you know, early in my childhood when I was
ignoring those spelling tests and things, I was building boats. I liked
creating things and doing that with your own hands is a self-satisfaction of
completing something, along with the self-satisfaction of taking something that
was theory and turning it into reality, and knowing that it's going to change
the world is extremely self-satisfying.
I mean, one of the decisions that I made very early on, when I switched from a
career in medicine to go into science, was the hope that if I made a major
scientific discovery, it would affect far more lives than I could ever do in a
one-on-one basis in medicine and treating people. And so making those levels of
discoveries is a joy that unless you've done it, you know, you wouldn't trade
anything on Earth for it.
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