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J. Craig Venter

        Science | American Biologists

J. Craig Venter, an American biochemist and businessman, is a pioneer in research on the human genome, the genetic instructions that control heredity in humans.

Venter was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, and grew up in San Francisco. After graduating from high school and serving in the Navy, he earned a degree in biochemistry at the University of California San Diego in 1972 and a Ph.D. degree in physiology and pharmacology in 1975. In 1984, he joined the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as chief of the section of receptor biochemistry. In 1990, he began working on the government-sponsored human genome project.

Each chromosome in a genome is composed of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). DNA is made up of chemical compounds called base pairs. Groups of base pairs called genes determine hereditary traits. Genome sequencing detects the pattern of base pairs, which helps reveal a gene's structure and its role in life processes or disease. In 1991, by focusing on a form of DNA and using powerful computer programs, Venter succeeded in sequencing human gene fragments.

Venter's work was highly criticized, however, especially when he and the NIH applied for patents on human gene fragments he had sequenced. In 1992, he left NIH and founded The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR). In 1994, Venter and 1978 Nobel Prize winner Hamilton Othanel Smith collaborated on a technique called “whole-genome shotgun sequencing” and successfully scripted the first genome of a bacterium.

Venter established the Celera Genomics Corporation in 1998 with the intent of completing the mapping of the human genome. In June 2000, he and geneticist Francis Collins, the director of the National Human Genome Research Project, announced that their organizations together had sequenced essentially the entire human genome.

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