Citations and Speeches


186th Congregation (2012)

John Craig VENTER
Doctor of Science honoris causa

Dr J. Craig Venter is one of the most remarkable biologists of our time. Many famous scientists find their place in history for having made one outstanding discovery but Craig Venter stands apart in that he has made not just one remarkable discovery but several. Once described as a `maverick wizard', his bold and at times disruptive thinking, combined with his startling creativity, have assured him long term acclamation.

Craig, a native of the San Francisco Bay area, began his tertiary education after serving a tour of duty in Vietnam and obtained his undergraduate and doctorate degrees from the University of California, San Diego. Having taught and pursued research at the State University of New York and the Roswell Park Cancer Institute, in 1984 he moved to the National Institute of Health (NIH) campus where he began studying genes involved in signal transmission between neurons. The human body is a remarkable piece of machinery. As you know, all our bodily functions are controlled by our genes and knowing and understanding our genetic makeup helps us appreciate how our body functions and in turn facilitates the determination of better medical treatment of illness. This became his mission.

Whilst at the NIH he became frustrated with traditional methods of gene identification which he considered to be slow and time-consuming so he developed a different technique that he called `Expressed Sequence Tags' (`ESTs') which proved to be a revolutionary new strategy for rapid gene discovery. Craig used ESTs to rapidly identify thousands of human genes.

In 1992 Craig left to found The Institute for Genomic Research, a not-for-profit research institute. It was there that he and his team made several outstanding discoveries using his new genomic tools and techniques, namely the whole genome shotgun sequencing technique.

In 1995, in collaboration with Dr. Hamilton Smith, he determined, using the whole genome shotgun technique, the genomic sequence of Haemophilus Influenzae, a bacterium that causes meningitis. This achievement marked the first time that the complete sequence of a free-living organism had been deciphered.

The next significant event occurred in 1998 when Craig co- founded Celera Genomics (`celera' meaning swift in Latin) to begin sequencing the human genome using the whole genome shotgun technique. He immediately and provocatively announced that he would successfully sequence the human genome more quickly and more economically than the Government sponsored Human Genome Project that led to a race to accomplish the complete mapping of the human genome. One aim of Celera was to create a database of genomic data and informatics tools to which users could subscribe for a fee. This venture was subject to critical comment by several members of the genetics community. Craig and his team using his shotgun method, worked to decode small sections of millions of pieces of DNA of the human genome that were then assembled in a supercomputer into a full length genomic sequence. DNA from five individuals was used by Celera to generate the sequence of the human genome, one of these five being Craig himself and another was the Nobel Laureate Ham Smith.

Perhaps I should point out to non-scientists, that his shotgun technique differed from the technique conventionally employed at the time by others, in particular the Government funded Human Genome Project run by Francis Collins, which used the slower clone by clone method. Indeed our own Vice Chancellor Professor Lap Chee Tsui had already been working on sequencing the human genome and was instrumental in helping to secure funds for the Human Genome Project. Many scientists held the view that the shotgun technique would either not work or would be less accurate than the clone by clone method and, although initially received with skepticism, his approach was later to gain widespread acceptance and approbation and is the principal method used by genome scientists around the world.

Who would win the race to achieve the first successful mapping of the human genome? In 2000 President Bill Clinton announced that this stellar achievement had been accomplished both by Craig and Francis Collins - in other words he declared a tie! The reality was that Craig had won.

Having left Celera Genomics, Craig was not a man to rest on his laurels and he and his team at his new institute, the J Craig Venter Institute, continued with their work of sequencing and analyzing hundreds of genomes. Their industry lead to the creation of the first self-replicating bacteria cell constructed entirely of synthetic DNA: in other words he achieved the first creation of synthetic life. In his boat Sorcerer II he also personally led the Global Ocean Sampling Expedition to help map the ocean's biodiversity, assess the genetic diversity in marine microbial communities and sequence microbial life in the ocean.

In addition to the not for profit Venter Institute, Craig co-founded a new company called Synthetic Genomics Inc (`SGI'), a firm with the provocative mission to construct synthetic genomes to develop improved products such as clean fuels and biochemicals with the stated aim of reducing fossil fuel dependence and environmental degradation. SGI is also working to create new vaccines, improved agricultural crops and new sources of food and nutritional products.

In 2007 he established another first by mapping the 6 billion letter genetic code of his own `diploid' genome, in the process discovering a personal genetic predisposition to blue eyes, antisocial behaviour and heart disease! Of his work in genomics Craig said:

The goal that I have is to make genomics transform medicine.

Craig has received numerous awards and honorary degrees for his work. In 2008 he received the United States National Medal of Science from President Obama, the highest honor the US bestows on its scientists. He has also twice been named by Time Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. Indeed he may be seen as not only immensely influential but also as a `larger than life' figure. Nature Magazine described Craig as `maverick, publicity hound, risk taker, brash, controversial, genius, manic, rebellious, visionary, arrogant, feisty, determined and provocative'. As can be imagined, his autobiography `A Life Decoded: My Genome: My Life' is not lacking in controversy and is well worth reading.

In sum Craig has been responsible for extending the boundaries of known science. In particular his novel conceptual approach to deciphering the human genome and in creating synthetic life make him stand apart from other scientists. The maverick wizard is in truth a giant.

Mr Pro-Chancellor

It is my honour and privilege to present to you Dr John Craig Venter for the award of Doctor of Science honoris causa.

Citation written and delivered by Professor Michael Wilkinson, the Public Orator.