Venter will put your genes on CD

The Associated Press
Wednesday October 02, 2002

Mapping and reading J. Craig Venter’s genome took 15 years, $5 billion and some of the most sophisticated computers available. 

Now, Venter hopes to burn individual genomes, a human’s entire DNA sequence, onto shiny compact discs that can be read within a week for about $500,000 a piece. 

Venter hopes ultimately to mass-produce gene CDs like so many Bruce Springsteen CDs that will stock the shelves of every general practitioner’s office and be covered by insurance. He said he has lined up a number of rich donors to kick off his nonprofit individual genome project. 

“We are trying to push genomics to the $1,000 genome,” Venter said. 

But Venter has his work cut out. Not only does he have to surmount ethical, financial and scientific hurdles, there’s the issue of fitting and analyzing the three billion DNA base pairs that make up the genome on CD — that’s three gigabytes of computer storage. It would take 200 volumes, each the size of a Manhattan telephone book, to compile the human genome in written form. 

The idea is that doctors will be able to prevent and treat diseases better when they are able to read and interpret individuals genomes. Already, genetic tests can determine if some women are more prone to breast cancer than others. Armed with that knowledge, women can alter their diets and exercise regimen to lower their cancer chances. 

Venter led the for-profit team in the dramatic race against government scientists to decipher the human genome. Both teams simultaneously announced the successful sequencing of five human genomes, including Venter’s, in competing scientific papers last year. Venter, former chief of genomics pioneer Celera before being forced out when the company changed business directions, now runs three nonprofit ventures he founded. 

Those three ventures are pouring $30 million to build a new gene-sequencing center in Rockville, Md., which Venter expects to open by year’s end. It’s there that Venter and other scientists will work on putting individual genomes on CDs by next year. 

Venter said the only way to mass produce genes cheaply on CD is just to do it. He estimates the first CDs will cost about $500,000 each. So he said he’s lined up several wealthy individuals, whom he has declined to identify, who will pay to have their genomes mapped.