J. Craig Venter - whose celebrated work in genomics has led him to be compared to Charles Darwin, Dr. Frankenstein and even God - is at it again.
Despite the dismal outcome of his first foray into the business world - he was ousted as chief executive officer of Celera Genomics Group, a company he founded - the scientist announced yesterday that he is giving commercialization another go, launching a second company with Nobel Prize winner and longtime friend and colleague Hamilton O. Smith.
Called Synthetic Genomics Inc., the Rockville business will focus on doing the formerly unthinkable: engineering life.
"We are in an era of rapid advances in science and are beginning the transition from being able to not only read genetic code, but are now moving to the early stages of being able to write the code," Venter said in a prepared statement. A spokeswoman for Synthetic Genomics said none of the founders was available yesterday for further comment.
The project is the latest unusual chapter in the life of a scientist who gained international acclaim five years ago when he announced the mapping of the human genome code at the White House with then-President Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. His plans to commercialize the genome map failed, and he parted ways with the company he founded.
Since then, he has been sailing the globe on a sloop, the Sorcerer II, on an expedition to collect biological samples from waters around the globe and map the genomes of the organisms he finds. His journey, half complete, has helped him to discover more than a million genes and at least 1,800 species - information he expects to use in creating organisms. A similar project to map organisms within the air is under way, beginning in New York City.
The initial goal of his new company will be to manufacture organisms that perform specific functions and that can be inserted into cells, helping produce alternative fuel sources such as ethanol or hydrogen. Venter told an audience at a biotechnology conference in Boston last month that man-made genes will be the "design components of the future" - the building blocks for a new, biology-based technology.
His plan may be greeted with the same criticisms as his previous works from those opposed on moral or ethical grounds to experimenting with the genetic building blocks of life. When Venter manufactured a comparatively simple virus using man-made DNA bought through the mail in 2003, religious organizations took issue. Over the past 30 years, questions and issues concerning genetically modified foods, cloning and embryonic stem cell research have raised similar debate.
Venter had convened a panel of ethicists and moral leaders in 1999 to discuss the hypothetical implications of synthetic life. The group, which published its findings in the journal Science in 1999, concluded that if the work benefited mankind and was performed in a responsible manner, it was acceptable.
"I think the conclusion would be similar" today, Mildred Cho, associate director of the Stanford University Center For Biomedical Ethics and former chairwoman of Venter's ethical panel, said last night.
In what appeared to be a pre-emptive strike, Venter announced a partnership Tuesday among his institute, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS), a nonpartisan research policy organization in Washington. Funded by a $570,000 grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the group intends to study the implications of synthetic genomics. It plans to release its findings next summer.
Concerns about bioterrorism resulting from the efforts have been heightened in recent years.
"The scientific and security communities have the responsibility to prepare for the opportunities and misuse that may arise from any new technology," said Gerald P. Epstein, who works in the Homeland Security program in the CSIS.
The science behind Synthetic Genomics is much more complicated than creating a virus, and thus far unrealized, though Venter has been developing it for several years through nonprofit organizations that he merged into one last year, the J. Craig Venter Institute.
His work in the area has been largely paid for through $12 million in multiyear grants from the U.S. Department of Energy's Genomes to Life program. But the grant expired this year. Venter expects to raise $30 million from private investors during the new company's first financing round - half of it already contributed by a single, unnamed backer.
"I'm thrilled always whenever basic research that we fund leads to a commercialization of the ideas and the technology," said Aristides Patrinos, an Energy Department official.
The federal government is relying on such science to create clean fuel sources and reduce concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, Patrinos said. His office funds several such public and private projects throughout the country.
For Venter, the work in synthetic genomics could, he said in an interview this month, eclipse his best-known achievement, mapping the human genetic code. In the late 1990s, Venter raced an international and publicly funded group of scientists led by the National Institutes of Health to be the first to sequence the human genetic code, starting Celera to complete the task. The NIH and Celera shared the credit by presenting genome drafts simultaneously before a White House gathering in 2000.
Celera, whose stock soared as high as $247 per share in March 2000, had sought to make millions by selling access to genetic information. Unable to make a profit off it, the company announced plans to donate the information to a public database this summer.
After Venter was forced out of Celera by its board of directors in 2002, he turned his energy to his nonprofit institutes. He is ready to try the corporate world again, with his partners - Smith, who won the 1978 Nobel Prize for his work on the discovery of restriction enzymes, and Jaun Enriquez, a writer and former founding director of Harvard Business School's Life Sciences Project.
"I have known and worked with Craig Venter for many years, and I have been very impressed with his ability to think ahead," said Patrinos, the energy official. " ... I would say he would be very successful in what he has started."