Genomics pioneer J. Craig Venter to speak at 2004 Commencement
By Brian Fitzgerald
J. Craig Venter, a scientist and entrepreneur who was a principal leader in the effort to decode the human genome, will deliver the main address at BU’s 131st Commencement Exercises on Sunday, May 16, at 11 a.m. at Nickerson Field. More than 20,000 people are expected to attend.
“Dr. Venter is one of the most remarkable scientists in the world at the present time,” says BU President ad interim Aram Chobanian. “He’s president of the Center for the Advancement of Genomics, he’s been a true visionary and pioneer in genomic research, and he’s a very charismatic speaker. It was Dr. Venter’s unconventional approach and sheer tenacity that was most responsible for sequencing the human genome.”
Venter was described in a December 2000 Time magazine article as the man who “jump-started a biological revolution.” As a staff member at the National Institutes of Health from 1984 to 1992, he developed expressed sequence tags, or ESTs, a revolutionary new strategy for gene discovery. After he left the NIH, he started his own private research firm, the Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR), with his wife and fellow NIH researcher, Claire Fraser. Venter and his team at TIGR decoded the genome of the bacterium Haemophilus influenzae — the first free-living organism to have its full DNA deciphered. He served as president and CEO of TIGR until 1998, when he founded Celera Genomics with the goal of testing the whole genome shotgun sequence, new mathematical algorithms, and new automated DNA sequencing machines.
In the late 1990s his team at Celera was in a well-publicized race with the largely government-funded Human Genome Project to decipher the human genetic code. Both completed the work in 2000 and published their findings the following year.
Today Venter heads three not-for-profit organizations dedicated to exploring social and ethical issues in genomics, as well as looking for alternative solutions to energy needs through microbial sources. His Institute for Biological Alternatives is trying to create a simple microbe to absorb carbon dioxide pollutants in power plants and release harmless hydrogen.
Venter grew up in Millbrae, Calif. After high school, he was a medical corpsman in Vietnam before attending the University of California at San Diego, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry in 1972 and a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology in 1975. Venter taught at SUNY Buffalo and Roswell Park Cancer Institute before joining the NIH in 1984.
“He recently combined his love of sailing and surfing with a new project: an 18-month expedition in the Sargasso Sea to seek out and sequence the DNA of new microbes,” says Chobanian. The project is financed by the U.S. Department of Energy. “He and his colleagues during this period of time have already discovered over 1.2 million new genes and 1,800 microbes, some of which he hopes will have potential for use as alternative sources of energy.”
Venter’s yacht, the Sorcerer II, was converted into a research vessel, and the goal of the expedition is, in Venter’s words, a “catalog of the earth’s gene pool.” Some of his Sargasso Sea findings were published in March by the journal Science.
He is the recipient of numerous scientific awards, and is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Society for Microbiology.
At the general Commencement exercises, Venter will receive an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from the University.
Venter and his family live in Potomac, Md.
13 May 2004