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DISCOVERY · Beach (and sea) combing today, data analysis tomorrow; Venter talks about his voyage.

By Melissa Trudinger

March 8, 2005 | Since leaving Celera Genomics in 2003, J. Craig Venter has turned his attention from mining the human genome to exploring the life forms of the oceans, the beginning of what he calls a "full systematic survey of the planet." (See April 2004 Bio·IT World, page 1.) Melissa Trudinger, of Bio·IT World's sister publication Australian Life Scientist, caught up with Venter on the Australian leg of his round-the-world voyage of discovery.

Q: How much time do you get to spend on the trip itself?
VENTER: I fly in and out, and do all the major ocean passages — the goal isn't to watch my boat from my office sail around the world. Not too many people get to sail around the world doing world-class science, so I try to do as much of that as possible. But I still have to run an institute and things, so I definitely fly back and forth.

What are your goals for the project?
I've done a lot of interviews, including one in the Galapagos on Darwin's birthday, comparing [what we're doing] to what Darwin did. At this stage of the game, what Darwin was doing was collecting samples, and it wasn't as though he came up with his theory of evolution while sitting on the beach in the Galapagos ... That's one of the challenges we have,

GIANT WET LAB: Craig Venter (l) monitors ocean sampling during Sorcerer II's round-the-world voyage. 
to see if we can come up with a new view of biology from being the first to have this massive gene collection — a gene-centric view of the world to see what the data actually say. One aspect is collecting the data, and part of it is trying to make some intelligent findings out of them, and that's a big challenge.

How many scientists do you think are using the data that are out there so far?
All we hear is that it's the most used database now out there, and the diversity in it is far greater than the rest of Genbank put together, so I have no idea, but I'm sure it's in the thousands ... I'm finding more general interest with our environmental genomics work than I've found collectively for everything we've ever done in the human genome.

It would seem that the Human Genome Project was just the tip of the iceberg, if you put in scale and context?
Without the genome project, it would have been maybe 100 years to find all the human genes, if ever — just looking for things one function at a time. Somehow, biologists have proceeded quite nicely up to [2005] without knowing who is in our environment. People had the notion there was more there than they thought, but one of the peculiar things about science is that if you can't measure something, it largely doesn't exist.

Where do you think this sort of project will go from here? 
We're hoping our global expedition will be the catalyst for governments around the world, scientists around the world, adopting this approach and doing a full systematic survey of the planet. So going from an idea [that] people were sure couldn't possibly work, to showing that even if we go from less than 1 percent of the biology of the planet to 5 to 10 percent, that at least gives us a window on what we're missing.

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