After surviving Vietnam—after choosing to survive it—Venter never drifted again. The brashness remained, and the surfer’s disrespect for authority, but they were channeled into a fierce ambition and a desire to make a difference in the world. He got married, went back to community college, and then enrolled in the University of California, San Diego, where he earned a joint doctorate in physiology and pharmacology, choosing research over medicine. (“A doctor can save maybe a few hundred lives in a lifetime,” he told his brother at the time, with a characteristic mix of ego and idealism; “a researcher can save the whole world.”) All this took six years. It was followed by a junior faculty position at the State University of New York, Buffalo, where he drove a baby-blue Mercedes, favored garish shirts and bell-bottoms, split up with his wife, and married one of his students, Claire Fraser. In 1984 he took a position at the National Institutes of Health. There he would first impress and then clash with James Watson, the famous (and famously contentious) co-discoverer of the molecular structure of DNA, who took over the leadership of NIH’s branch of the nascent Human Genome Project in 1990. After Venter developed a quick-and-dirty method of identifying genes, Watson, with Venter present, told a 1991 Senate meeting that the technique “isn’t science,” because the machines “could be run by monkeys.”
By the following summer, Venter had quit NIH and raised enough venture capital to found the Institute for Genomic Research, or TIGR, where he would have complete control of all research, although any marketable discoveries would belong to the commercial wing of the enterprise, a company called Human Genome Sciences; this was his initial step onto the nonprofit/for-profit tightrope he has walked ever since. In 1995, his team published the decoded genetic script for the bacterium Haemophilus influenzae; it was the first time the complete genome of a living organism had been mapped. Later that year, a team led by Fraser published the genome for the parasite Mycoplasma genitalium, a far simpler organism, with only about 500 genes to H. influenzae’s 1,800. “We immediately began to ask obvious questions,” Venter says. “Is there a minimal operating system for a cell? … Was [M. genitalium] the minimum, or could we eliminate genes from that species and get smaller?”
So began the quest for the “minimal genome,” the bare-bones genetic material necessary for life to sustain itself and reproduce. This required dismantling M. genitalium, which suggested another possibility: If you could take a genome apart bit by bit, why not put one together in the same way, creating “life from scratch,” as Venter puts it, with a genome of your choice? Meanwhile, Venter sequenced a third microbe, Methanococcus jannaschii, an organism found deep in the Pacific Ocean. M.jannaschii is an autotroph, meaning that it generates all its energy from inorganic substances. It survives by converting carbon dioxide and hydrogen to methane, and fixes the carbon from the carbon dioxide into its cellular protein structures—a process of obvious interest in a world with an excess of carbon dioxide. “That organism,” Venter says, was responsible for “stimulating our thinking, or my thinking, on the energy front.”
But then the human genome beckoned. In 1998, the biotech firm Perkin-Elmer persuaded Venter to head a new company that would use a technique called “whole-genome shotgunning” to try to speed up the genome-mapping process. At that point the government’s Human Genome Project, using a slower, more painstaking method, was seven years away from its projected date of completion. The new company, eventually called Celera, vowed to finish the work in three years. The pledge, and the race that followed, made Venter world-famous. It also cemented the reputation for egomania that he had developed at SUNY Buffalo, at NIH, and among his partners at Human Genome Sciences (with whom he feuded and eventually parted ways), and it added a multitude of government scientists and officials to an already-substantial list of enemies.