A Life Decoded Summary and Review

by J. Craig Venter
Has A Life Decoded by J. Craig Venter been sitting on your reading list? Pick up the key ideas in the book with this quick summary.  The deciphering of the human genome by free-spirited American J. Craig Venter must be considered one of the biggest scientific achievements of the modern era.  You might wonder what would make a person take on such an immense task. What made Venter grow up to become so ambitious, and what fed his relentless motivation right up to and beyond his amazing scientific breakthroughs?  This book summary tells the tale of the life of a driven scientist – from his childhood of playful creativity to his defiant attitude and rapid ascent within the scientific community.  In this book summary, you’ll learn: In this summary of A Life Decoded by J. Craig Venter,
  • how Venter's life was saved by a shark attack
  • why Venter became the center of controversy by identifying human genes
  • what task Venter took on to help save the environment

A Life Decoded Key Idea #1: Formative Childhood

Freedom is Among J. Craig Venter’s most vivid early childhood memory. Venter was born in 1946 and grew up in a small town 15 miles south of San Francisco, California called Millbrae. Often during his childhood, Venter’s parents would tell him to “go play” with no further direction. This liberty helped Venter discover three important personal traits.  Venter thrived on taking risks and facing challenges as a young boy. San Francisco International Airport was one of his favorite destinations, where he would spend hours watching the planes take off and land. Of course, the airport was very different in the ’50s from the way it is today, with no security, and no cameras or wired fences.  Venter and his friends decided to race airplanes on the runway. The idea was to wait until a plane started to taxi down the runway in preparation for takeoff.  They would then race it on their bikes for as long and as far as they could.  Although the airport police were occasionally dispatched when pilots notified the control tower, the boys escaped easily because the runway was such a long way from the terminal.  Venter’s unquenchable urge to build things was another key trait that became apparent early in his life.  Venter’s early efforts at construction were modest, small but elaborate tunnels and forts.  Practical endeavors were what interested Venter and he tended to ignore school curriculums. Building an electronic scoreboard for the junior high school baseball field in seventh grade was one of these more practical projects.  Rather than making furniture in his woodworking class, he built a motorboat, an intricate hydroplane that was based on a new design which had set a speed record of 60 mph. In order to obtain the materials he needed to build things from scratch, young Venter would do nearly anything.  

Understanding Life Itself: medical training during the Vietnam war 

Venter was sent to Vietnam in 1967 at the age of 20. Due to his impressive IQ test score of 142, he was able to go to hospital corps school. This way, instead of combat missions, Venter served as an enlisted member of the military medical unit, a corpsman, instead. 

Venter acquired a number of medical skills while practicing medicine at the Da Nang, Vietnam Navy hospital. As a senior corpsman in the intensive care ward, Venter treated victims of bullets, mines, and napalm.  Later, he dealt with a range of disorders, including malaria, tumors, and venereal diseases when he joined the dermatology and infectious disease clinic.  Due to widespread prostitution venereal disease was nearly an epidemic among soldiers in Vietnam.  local orphanage in Da Nang was also part of Venter’s jobThere hattended to everything from major wounds to broken bonespregnancies to insect infestations.  Through his experiences in the Vietnam War Venter discovered just how vulnerable humans are to injury and death.  Venter had experienced the death of several hundred soldiers, many who lost the battle while he was massaging their hearts or trying to breathe life into them. The impact of spirit and determination on one’s survival was demonstrated by badly wounded patients who lived despite the odds. The pain and suffering he witnessed took its toll on Venter.  He was determined to take his own life after five months in Vietnam.  Planning to become so weakened that he would drown, Venter swam away in the ocean to escape the horror. This didn’t work the way he had planned as he was attacked by a shark and swam back to shore.  His experiences in Vietnam were starting point for Venter’s strong drive to understand life through scienceAfter being exposed to the fragility of life, he wanted to understand the essence of it. 

A Life Decoded Key Idea #2: Life’s Purpose

Spurred on by having the most profound depths of mind, body, and soul in Vietnam, Venter pursued his own education with new urgencyHis poor academic record meant his college choices where limited.  Venter enrolled in classes at the College of San Mateo in early 1969.  He worked hard and received straight As in all three semesters at San Mateo.  Venter was then accepted to study biochemistry at the University of California, San Diego. It was here that he made his start in research, publishing his findings in various scientific journals.  Venter drew the attention of Nathan O. Kaplan, the distinguished biochemist, and a leading enzymologist, with his unusual medical background and his superb academic performance. Venter was encouraged by Kaplan to come up with an original idea for a research project.  Venter chose to study the response caused by adrenaline known as “fight or flight.  The current theory that adrenaline worked inside human cells was disproved by Venter when he demonstrated that the chemical actually worked on the cell surface. Venter submitted his findings in the prestigious journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science while still an undergraduate student  Venter went on to complete and publish eleven more papers in quality journals in his two years of graduate study – more than most doctoral students manage in five years. Venter earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry in 1975 Halso became known to the scientific community during this time.  Venter was appreciative of the excellent scientists with whom he was working during his career at the universityThrough Kaplan’s parties, to which Venter was always invited, the young scientist met great names in science such as Carl and Gerty Cori (Nobel Prize winners in 1947), Ephraim Katzir (a biochemist and former president of Israel) or William McElroy, the university chancellor. 

A Life Decoded Key Idea #3: A New Idea

Venter chose the State University of New York in Buffalo to launch the next phase of his career.  It was here he was offered a postdoctoral junior faculty position. Venter decided to leave Buffalwhen he was not offered a permanent position.  Venter was offered the chance in 1983 to further his research at the powerhouse of medical research in America, the National Institutes of Health (NIH). His life and the course of his scientific research would be forever changed by this offer.  At the NIH, Venter found himself in scientific heaven.  He entered the new field of genomics – the branch of molecular biology that studies genes.   Not only was he given hundreds of thousands of dollars to set up and equip his laboratory and had an annual budget of over $1 million, but he could also collaborate with hundreds of the finest researchers in the nation that called the NIH campus home.  Venter and his team had found a gene responsible for the recognition of adrenaline at the NIH and Venter wrote the first paper in molecular biology of his career. The idea of decoding the entire human genome came to Venter with his entry into genomics.  DNA stores all biological information of which genes are regions. Determining the exact order of the chemical building blocks from which the gene is built is known as decoding or sequencing.  single adrenaline receptor gene of what was at the time estimated to be 100,000 human genes was decoded by Venter after a decade’s workConsidering this, it’s not too hard to imagine why the idea of decoding the entire human genome was considered impossible at the time by most scientists.  database showing the sequence of every human gene drew Venter. 

A Life Decoded Key Idea #4: Scientific Controversy

Deciphering the human genome – all the genetic material of the human organism - fascinated Venter. But he quickly found himself at the center of a fierce controversy when he made a breakthrough that he believed could change the science of genomes.  While at the NIH, Venter established a technique that allowed him to rapidly identify human genes. This technique detects short fragments of DNA called Expressed Sequence Tags, or ESTs, which can be used to draw inferences about specific genes. When attempting to patent newly identified genesVenter became a controversial scientist.  Convinced that his approach was of incredible value for gene discovery and the understanding of the human genome, Venter, together with the NIH, attempted to patent the genes he identified on the basis of the ESTs.  Many believed that human genes shouldn’t be patented at all, so this attempt unleashed a great wave of criticism from the scientific community and instantly made Venter a divisive figure. Critics claimed that Venter was attempting a wholesale patenting of the human genome.   One researcher, according to the New York Timesclaimed that Venter’s approach was a “quick and dirty land grab.” Feeling there was too little support for his genomic research efforts, Venter left the NIH to continuhis research at a private institute.  When Venter left the NIH in 1992, he wanted to realize the full potential of the EST method by scaling up genomics without the government bureaucracy at the NIH holding him back. Human Genome Sciences (HGS), a company willing to fund his research and market his discoveries, sent him an offerVenter set up The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR), his own research institute.  It was then that researchers began to fear the possibility that private investors could monopolize and own the entire human genome. 

A Life Decoded Key Idea #5: Being First

Venter had a meaningful success on his way to the deciphering of the human genome.  He decoded the genome of a living species for the first time in history.  A brand-new method to decode a genome had been developed by Venter, called “shotgun sequencing.”  The method made it much easier to analyze DNA by fragmenting a genome into thousands of pieces.  Shotgun fragmenting was a great leap forward in DNA analysis, but would it work in the attempt to decode the monstrously complex human genome? Venter needed an arena to test the method to find outTo see whether the shotgun sequencing method was appropriate for use on complicated DNA, he chose to decode the bacterium H.influenzae genome.  Venter was successful in decoding the entire H.influenzae genome in 1995. This was a historic moment in genome researchAlthough he had become the very first to decipher the full genome of a living species, Venter didn’t stop at this accomplishment.  Despite the success of deciphering the H.influenzae genome, Human Genome Sciences (HGS), the funders of Venter’s research, became increasingly unwilling to provide financial support for his research  A key conflict was about Venter’s right to publish his findings since HGS wanted to capitalize on them.  As a result, Venter terminated his relationship with HGS even before the deciphering of the human genome could get started.  Venter was approached with an offer to build Celera, a new subsidiary of the American biotech company PerkinElmer, thus he got a second chance to decode the human genome. To aid scientific discovery with a high-quality database of the complete human genome was Celera’s aim.   Eventually, the publicly-financed Human Genome Project (HGP) and Celera would be forced to compete in their efforts at decoding the human genome. Both Celera and the HGP jointly announced to have successfully decoded the entire human genome in 2000.  Of course, Venter was at the center of this groundbreaking achievement. 

A Life Decoded Key Idea #6: Recognition

Venter spent June 26, 2000, which was probably the most important day in his life, at the White House.  There he met President Bill Clinton and announced to the world that the scientific research effort of years had finally come to fruition.  Venter, along with Francis Collins of the Human Genome Project (HGP), jointly announced at the White House the deciphering of the entire human genome on that fateful dayBoth organizations had worked parallel to one another with the aim of decoding the human genome.  Venter’s technique of shotgun sequencing was deemed inappropriate for the human genome by many of the HGP’s researchers.  But when Venter and Collins were invited to the White House to announce their historic scientific achievement together, with US President Bill Clinton and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair in attendance, the race was deemed to be over.  Venter and his team felt relief that the race was over despite the fact that they had always considered themselves to be ahead of the HGP team Both prominent politicians and the leading contributors within the genome community made up the audience at the White House in June 2000.  After this historic day, recognition for his success came hard and fast. Venter traveled around the world from Saudi Arabia, where he received the King Faisal International Prize for Science, to Vienna where former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev presented him with the World Health Award.  Top universities around the world awarded Venter a multitude of honorary degrees.  He was also given the Paul Ehrlich and Ludwig Darmstaedter Prize. Japan offered him the Takeda award, and from Canada came the Gairdner Award, both notable prizes in science.  What do you do when you’re standing at the top of the mountain?  Although it seemed like Venter couldn't get any higher, he soon found a new scientific purpose. 

A Life Decoded Key Idea #7: New Research

Venter found himself in search of a new purpose after deciphering the human genome. So, hfound a project that combined two great loves of his life: science and sailing. Venter’s scientific efforts are now devoted to now reading the ocean’s genome.  Ibecame evident to Venter that modern life will eventually become unsustainable. Global climate patterns are altering due to the billions of tons of carbon dioxide that we are releasing into the atmosphere each year. Venter wanted to do more than simply use less oil and gas, or install solar panels. He believed that genomics had some unique offerings in this area.  Venter believed it was important to discover exactly what is in the oceans so we can assess the effects of climate change, such as ocean acidification. For this reason, he began the enormous task of analyzing the genetic material of all the microorganisms swimming in seawater.  Obtaining a snapshot of the microbial diversity in a single drop of seawater was the idea behind this undertakingTens of thousands of new species, often strange and exotic, have been discovered by Venter.  In only 200 liters of surface seawater, he has discovered more than 1.3 million new genes.  Along with his ocean research, Venter works on developing synthetic biological organisms. He wonders if we could design new organisms to soak up carbon dioxide while living in the emission-control system of a coal-fired plant. It may even be possible to alter the atmosphere by harnessing microbes and their biochemistry.  With the vision of helping to clean up pollution in our environment, Venter currently works on the creation of synthetic organisms. Venter founded the J. Craig Venter Institute In 2006.  With over five hundred scientists and staff, it is one of the largest private research institutes in the world and has an annual budget of over $70 million.   

In Review

The key message in this book: 

  1. Craig Venter loved facing challenges even as a child. Venter devoted his scientific efforts todecipher the human genome, one of the greatest challenges that science had to offerand thus understanding of the very essence of life, after being confronted with the fragility of human life in the Vietnam War. In 2000 the entire human genome was decoded and Venter was among the first group of scientists accomplish this amazing feat. 
Actionable advice:  Let curiosity lead you.  Great achievements can stem from nothing more than natural curiosity and J. Craig Venter’s life is a perfect example of thisWhether it was racing airplanes or building a functioning hydroplaneVenter was curious about everything as a child. His curiosity to understand life in its every detail drove his scientific career Hopefully, this inspires you to keep your natural curiosity alive and try to follow it. Systems or people may try to keep your thinking inside the box but don’t be discouraged!  Suggested further reading: Genome by Matt Ridley  Go on an exciting journey into your own body with Genome (2006, second edition).  You will explore the genetic building blocks that make up not only all life on earth but who you are but as wellFrom aging to illness to even your own personality, you’ll examine the basics of genetics and discover what genes influence these traitsYou’ll explore why the future of healthcare and wellness might just be found in the human genome.