University of Pittsburgh

The Dickson Prize in Medicine

2011 Dickson Prize Winner

Stephen J. Elledge, PhD

J. Craig Venter, PhD

Founder and CEO, Synthetic Genomics Inc.
Founder and president, J. Craig Venter Institute

Watch the 2011 Dickson Prize in Medicine Lecture here.


J. Craig Venter, PhD, is known worldwide for his seminal achievements in the field of genomics. His team completed sequencing the first draft human genome in 2001 and the first diploid human genome in 2007. In 2010, Venter and his team announced success in constructing the first synthetic bacterial cell—a self-replicating organism with a genome that was designed on a computer and inserted into bacterial cells. He is the founder and president of the J. Craig Venter Institute and founder and CEO of Synthetic Genomics Inc.

A description of Venter’s childhood and early adulthood offers scant evidence that he would become a leading biomedical scientist. He was an outstanding high school swimmer but a lackluster student. He turned down a swimming scholarship to surf the coast of southern California. Drafted into the U.S. Army in the early days of the Vietnam War, he enlisted in the Navy, trained as a medical corpsman, and was dispatched to a field hospital in Da Nang, on the coast of South Vietnam.

Venter returned from overseas in 1968. He was 21 years old, with extensive medical skills but no college education. (After a year in Vietnam, three military medals, and an honorable discharge, he called himself a graduate of the “University of Death.”) He enrolled at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), where he discovered a passion for scientific investigation. He explored the action of adrenalin on cell surface receptors, publishing his first paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 1972, the same year he graduated with a BA in biology. He remained at UCSD for doctoral work with biochemist Nathan O. Kaplan, PhD. He earned his PhD in pharmacology and physiology in 1975 and quickly accepted a junior faculty position at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

When Venter submitted his first National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant application, which was successful, the award came with this concise and telling bit of criticism from a reviewer: “Too ambitious.” This tepid assessment was a harbinger of many future interactions between the forward-thinking biologist and a scientific establishment he found too cautious. Venter would later work at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke for eight years (1984–92), where he led early efforts to determine the sequence of human genes. In 1987, his lab purchased NIH’s first commercial DNA sequencing machine. Venter’s team exploited a technique for rapidly identifying messenger RNA present in a cell and using that information to identify bits of complementary DNA (cDNA). The short cDNA sequence fragments discovered by this method—called “expressed sequence tags,” or ESTs—can be reconstructed into the genes that code for proteins. In this way, Venter’s group began producing what was, for the time, enormous amounts of genomic data.

Venter and his critics agreed that the process was not practical for the ultimate goal of sequencing every one of the 6 billion base pairs of molecules in the human genome, vast stretches of which do not code for proteins. He saw ESTs as quick, cost-effective tools for finding genes; and he believed they would ultimately help annotate the complete genome, marking the locations of important genes.

In 1992, Venter left NIH, primarily out of frustration with the pace of the publicly funded Human Genome Project. With private funding as founder and president of The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR), he again accelerated the pace of genomic discovery by advancing a new technique known as “whole genome shotgun sequencing.” Instead of the time-consuming and expensive process of creating a rough map of each chromosome and then systematically populating it with sequence information, Venter put his faith in randomness. Shotgun sequencing involves fragmenting the genome into thousands of shards of DNA that are easy to sequence. Researchers then assemble the genome by simply finding the places where these short sequences overlap. It’s akin to putting an enormously complex jigsaw puzzle together without the picture on the top of the box. The interlocking pieces are the only guide, and the picture emerges gradually.

Venter and his team published their working draft of the human genome—a composite of several individuals—in a special issue of Science in February 2001, virtually concurrently with that of the Human Genome Project, which published in Nature. In 2007, Venter’s team published (in Public Library of Science) the first complete diploid genome of an individual human. It was that of Venter himself, making him the first human to peruse his genome in its entirety.

Even before the enormous task of transcribing the human genome was completed, Venter envisioned the day when scientists would write genetic code, create synthetic DNA, and animate a living organism with this new set of genetic instructions. In May 2010, Venter and colleagues reported success in doing just that in the journal Science. Having removed the DNA from a bacterium, Mycoplasma mycoides, Venter and colleagues designed a genome, synthesized it in the lab, and transplanted it into the bacterium Mycoplasma capricolum, converting it into a synthetic version of M. mycoides. It is the first living, self-sustaining organism with a synthetic genome. Venter’s current research involves developing applications for this technology, such as designing bacteria and yeast to consume carbon dioxide and generate fuels.

An avid sailor since he was a young man, Venter regularly explores the world’s oceans to gather biological samples and mine them for genomic discoveries. He outfitted his 95-foot sloop, Sorcerer 2, to gather biological samples for DNA analysis. Over a two-year period, the Sorcerer 2 expedition circumnavigated the globe, taking extensive biological samples every 200 nautical miles. In a series of papers published in 2007, the research team described 400 newly discovered microbes and six million new genes, which doubled the number then known to science. To date, they have discovered and deposited into public databases more than 40 million new genes.

Venter is a recipient of the 2008 National Medal of Science, the 2008 ENI Award, the 2002 Gairdner Foundation International Award, and the 2001 Paul Ehrlich and Ludwig Darmstaedter Prize. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the author of A Life Decoded: My Genome: My Life (Viking, 2007).