Apologies to Craig Venter

I hereby express my sincere apologies to Craig Venter for describing him as "an
egotistical pompous ass". No, not in this blog--but verbally to friends and co-workers.

Venter gave an excellent lecture last night in Portland, Oregon as part of a local science lecture series. Basically, he focused on his book being sold in the lobby--as any lecture-giver would do--and his tone was often patting himself on the back for standing up to authority and being successful. But, successful people are entitled; and he's certainly successful:

  • He developed a computer technique for fast sequencing of genomes and accomplished mapping of the human genome (his) with considerably less time and cost than the Department of Energy results published at the same time.
  • He has since mapped over 50 genomes, discovered thousands of new organisms, and expanded the list of known genes in mammalian organisms.
  • He has focused people on the genome and its wonders in ways "boring" scientists have not.
  • He has turned venture capital and private donors' money into reams of knowledge.
  • He's fun to listen to.

I was most surprised to learn that his group spent a year and a half debating the ethics of sequencing the human genome before the work was done.  He also reminded me that his results are posted on the Internet, available for anyone to see and use. He publishes in the free-access online journal, PLoS.

His messages included the following:

  • Humans are more different than we thought. Whereas the general belief has been that humans differ by perhaps one nucleotide base in a thousand, the difference is more like 1 to 2 percent--one or two bases in a hundred.
  • Humans differ from chimpansees by 5-6%, not the 1% we've generally believed.
  • There's more variation in genomes than we've thought--he believes this allows for critical evolution in times of stress.
  • The oceans are filled--even at the greatest depth--with a million microorganisms per milliliter. Microbes live in great numbers in the most unlikely places.
  • Humans are going to wipe out their habitat here on earth before they figure out how to save it.

All in all, a fascinating speech--especially the question session. I'm glad I went.

Marie Godfrey, PhD



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