Groundbreaking Gene Scientist Is Taking His Craft to the Oceans
March 5, 2004
By ANDREW POLLACK
Dr. J. Craig Venter defied skeptical biologists by decoding
the human genome in a scant three years. Now he has set his
sights on an even grander goal - cataloging all the
microbial life in the world.
Dr. Venter said yesterday that he and colleagues had
discovered at least 1,800 new microbial species and more
than 1.2 million genes by sequencing the DNA from a sample
of seawater from the Sargasso Sea, off Bermuda. The
findings revealed a diversity of life in the ocean that has
not been seen until now.
"It's almost hyperbole," said David M. Karl, a professor of
oceanography at the University of Hawaii who was not
involved in the work. "How can you imagine one sample
having a million new genes and proteins that we don't know
Dr. Venter also announced at a Washington news conference
yesterday that he has embarked on an expedition around the
world partly inspired by Charles Darwin's voyage in the
1830's. His goal is to sample ocean water every 200 miles,
as well as some spots on land, to search for microbes. His
yacht, the Sorcerer II, is already in the Galápagos Islands
and has been converted into a research vessel.
The Sargasso Sea findings, published online yesterday by
the journal Science, represent perhaps the most dramatic
example to date of how genomics is beginning to shake up
Normally, scientists try to understand microbes by growing
them in laboratory cultures, but that has not been possible
with more than 99 percent of the world's bacteria. Dr.
Venter said his team extracted as much DNA as possible from
the creatures without growing them in culture.
The gene sequences provide some clue as to how many
different species are present and what they might look
like. "Now with these new tools we can see what everyone
has missed to date, which is the vast majority of life,"
Dr. Venter said.
He said that the 1.2 million genes discovered in the
Sargasso Sea exceeds the total number of genes from all
species in public databases, though only 70,000 of the
genes are truly novel, as opposed to variations on existing
genes. Humans have about 30,000 genes.
The sequences of all the discovered genes will be put into
the public domain, he said. The goal, he said, is "a
catalog of the earth's gene pool."
The team found nearly 800 new genes for proteins sensitive
to light, suggesting that more bacteria than thought might
be converting light into other types of energy.
The project, conducted at Dr. Venter's Institute for
Biological Energy Alternatives, was financed in part by the
Department of Energy, which hopes to harness microbes to
help produce energy or clean pollution.
Some oceanographers said that the work so far has not
taught them anything new, but has confirmed the variety of
ocean life and provide a giant parts list that would be
studied for years to come.
"He's allowed us for the first time to see that diversity,"
said Stephen Giovannoni, a professor at Oregon State
University who studies microbes in the Sargasso Sea.
Dr. Venter has a history of shaking up the scientific
establishment and attracting great publicity, such as when
his team at Celera Genomics deciphered the human genetic
code in a race with a government-sponsored Human Genome
Project. His entry into oceanography, for which he has no
training, has provoked both admiration and resentment.
Some oceanographers have said that Dr. Venter is not
collecting enough ancillary data such as water temperature
and salinity. They also said that some of the bacteria he
found might have come from contamination of the sample,
though the Science article said the researchers guarded
And some critics say that a serious oceanographer would use
a real research vessel, not a sailboat.
Dr. Venter conceded that one reason for using his own boat
was that he could combine work with pleasure. He ended his
press conference yesterday by saying: "I will be joining
the vessel very soon to head to French Polynesia. It's