Summary of A Life Decoded by J Craig Venter

BookSummaryClub Blog Summary of A Life Decoded by J Craig Venter

The human genome was first decoded in 2000. It is, and probably will always be one of the greatest scientific accomplishments of our time. The decoding of the genome opened up a whole new door of opportunities to researchers worldwide. However, how much do you know about the man behind this accomplishment? What made him want to take on one of the greatest puzzles in scientific history? Well, J. Craig Venter’s life shaped him to be the man for the mission. Even after he was done with the human genome, he continues to pursue other research which makes his name one that is greatly respected in the scientific community.

In this book summary readers will discover:

  • Venter’s early childhood and the traits he exhibited
  • How Venter’s time serving in the Vietnam war changed him
  • Venter’s impressive college years
  • Decoding the human genome
  • What Venter does now

Key lesson one: Venter’s early childhood and the traits he exhibited

J. Craig Venter grew up in a small town called Millbrae just outside San Francisco. The one thing about growing up in the 1950s he cherished was the freedom he enjoyed. It was this freedom that allowed Venter to take risks that anyone today would cringe at. He would, together with his friends, race airplanes on the bikes as they took off from the airport runway. There were many occasions when Venter and his friends would have to race to get away from airport police but, it was a different time and airports were not at secure as they are now.

Beyond being a risk-taker, Venter also liked to build things. School did not interest him that much and he preferred to spend his time constructing tunnels and forts. When he was in seventh grade he even built an electronic scoreboard for the baseball field. Venter loved new challenges and this combined with his other traits led him to bed his younger years constantly looking at new designs and trying to get his hand on the raw materials needed for his creations.

Key lesson two: How Venter’s time serving in the Vietnam war changed him

When Venter was 20, he got drafted for the Vietnam war. As with many young men at the time, there were no other options if you were called upon. Venter scored a 142 on his IQ test and was given the option of hospital corps school. This allowed him to be a member of the military medical unit and avoid any active combat missions. 

It was during this time in Da Nang that Venter developed his medical skills. He worked his way up to senior corpsman caring for soldiers wounded by mines, bullets and napalm. Venter later moved to the infectious disease clinic where he had to deal with soldiers with malaria and other venereal diseases due to their frequent visits to prostitutes in the area. Whilst working in Da Nang, Venter also helped out in a local orphanage. 

Venter’s time in Vietnam made him realise how truly vulnerable humans are. He experienced the despair and sadness of death and the will of the human spirit from survivors. However, this emotional rollercoaster took its toll on Venter as it did and does on many people who witness the atrocities of wars. Five months into his deployment, he attempted to commit suicide. He swam out into the ocean hoping to drown from exhaustion. A shark, unaware of Venter’s plan, decided he looked like a good snack and proceeded to attack him. This made Venter swim back to shore. The shark inadvertently saved his life and gave Venter a second chance. 

Key lesson three: Venter’s impressive college years

After spending three years in Vietnam, Venter returned to the States with new determination. He decided that he wanted to pursue further education and enrolled in the College of San Mateo. His determination in his classes was in stark contrast to the classes he despised in school. He managed to get all As and was accepted to the University of California to study biochemistry. 

His work quickly progressed and before long he began publishing his findings in scientific journals. Venter’s excellent academic performance coupled with his medical background captured the attention of Nathan O. Kaplan, a biochemist. With Kaplan’s encouragement, Venter came up with a proposed research plan centred around the fight or flight response. Even though he was still an undergrad, Venter submitted his findings from the research project to a scientific journal. In total, he submitted 12 papers over the course of two years. That was a huge accomplishment for a student. 

In 1975, 6 years after he first decided to go to college, Venter earned his PhD in biochemistry. In his time at University, whilst working with Kaplan he met his colleagues who also happened to be some of the best scientists of the time. 

Key lesson four: Decoding the human genome

After achieving success in California, Venter then decided to take up a postdoctoral junior faculty position at the State University of New York. He stayed there until he was refused a permanent position. He decided then that it was time to pursue his research elsewhere and found himself at the National Institute of Health (NIH). 

It was here that Venter moved into molecular biology and more specifically, genomics. He had not known until then that this was the challenge he had been searching for. Provided with an impressive budget, he set up his laboratory and got to work. Being at the NIH meant that Venter could collaborate with some of the country’s best scientists. His first molecular paper was regarding the gene responsible for adrenaline recognition. Soon after, he set himself the task of decoding the human genome. It had taken him a decade to find the gene responsible for adrenaline recognition – his fellow scientists thought that decoding the human genome would therefore be a lifetime commitment. 

Venter, however, was determined. His first discovery was a technique that could rapidly identify human gene fragments called Expressed Sequence Tags or ESTs. When Venter began identifying new genes using this technique he suggested that all the new genes should be patented. As can be imagined, this sparked a huge controversy amongst researchers. He had the backing of the NIH but the scientific community was not happy. They did not believe that Venter should be able to patent human genes whether he identified them or not. 

Venter eventually left the NIH in 1992 when he felt they no longer supported his research. He was approached by Human Genome Sciences, a company willing to fund his research and support his belief about patented genes. Together with Human Genome Sciences, The Institute for Genomic Research was founded with Venter at the helm. This was great for Venter but other scientists were still upset at the possibility of him cracking the human genome and selling it to the highest bidder. 

In his quest to decode the human genome, he first decoded the genome of a bacterium called H. influenzae. In doing so, he became the first person to decode the genome of a living species. He used a technique he developed called shotgun sequencing. It broke up the genome into fragments which could then be analysed easily. In 1995, this trial run of using shotgun sequencing to decode the genome of H. Influenzae was successful providing Venter with a huge win. However, behind the scenes, Venter was in a battle with Human Genome Sciences. They did not want him to publish his results as they wanted to use it for monetary gain. Before he could get started on the human genome, Venter left Human Genome Sciences before things got worse.

Venter was still quite famous considering his work thus far. He got an offer from PerkinElmer to build Celera, a company that would provide a database of the human genome to assist in other scientific research. Celera would eventually work with their competitors, Human Genome Project to decode the human genome. Venter and Francis Collins were both present at the White House in June 2000 to announce their success in decoding the human genome. It was something that scientists thought would take a lifetime to happen but Venter accomplished in a little less than two decades. 

This discovery put Venter in the limelight. He received numerous awards from all around the globe. He had achieved the impossible and opened the world of genomics to a new era of discovery.

Key lesson five: What Venter does now

What do you do after what you set out to accomplish is done? This is exactly what Venter asked himself when he was done with the human genome. He decided to pursue the two loves of his life, science and sailing. Venter now spends his time reading the ocean’s genome.

Venter understood that the effect of climate change will ultimately lead to the lack of sustainable living on our planet. Instead of just living greener, Venter wanted to put his scientific knowledge to good use. He believed that genomics would offer an answer. If he could determine the exact components of the oceans, he believed that he could accurately assess the effects of climate change. His project thus began to collect seawater and analyze the genetic material of all the microorganisms it contained.

In his analysis of single drops of seawater, Venter has managed to identify thousands of new species. Thus far, his work has revealed approximately 1.3 million genes and he uses his discoveries in the pursuit of developing synthetic biological organisms. His hope is that these organisms will help in dealing with carbon dioxide emissions and therefore save our planet.

The key takeaway from A Life Decoded is:

J. Craig Venter was a man who did not start of with a love of science, least of all genomics. From a young age, he despised school but loved to build things and a good challenge. His time in Vietnam changed his perspective in life and guided him in a new direction. His life thereafter was filled with scientific and academic excellence which did not go unnoticed. His continual pursuit and love of challenges brought him face to face with the human genome. His unique combination of traits made him the right man for the job. Despite the hardships, naysayers and greedy investors, he managed to still achieve his goal. 

How can I implement the lessons learned in A Life Decoded:

Venter’s perseverance was fueled by his love of challenges, natural curiosity and being a risk-taker. It was never what he set out to do when he was a child, it was something he discovered along the way. Despite his change of perspective in Vietnam, he still used his personality traits and life experience to guide him in his newfound passion for science. Likewise, you too can achieve greatness if you are resilient and can take risks when needed. Don’t let other people talk you out of what you want to accomplish.

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