Craig Venter Quotes from The Genome War


The book “The Genome War” by James Shreeve describes the mission to sequence the human genome. Throughout the book, Craig Venter’s confidence and irrepressible drive shines through. He deals with depression and stress so intense that he has to have part of his intestines removed, but he completes the phenomenal goal of sequencing the human genome. The book itself has a lot more context on these quotes, as well as much more material from Venter and other luminaries in the world of biology. This post was originally more than 4,000 words until I started editing it down to focus on the most notable quotes. More quotes from Venter are included in my post about his autobiography, A Life Decoded.

“On the flight up, I can tell you how we’re going to change the paradigm of medicine.”

“We’re going to be on the forefront of everything. We’re going to need to build the fastest computer in the world, with data production orders of magnitude bigger than anything else. We’re thinking on a different scale. Just doing the human genome and stopping there is way short of what can be accomplished.”

“As people start to get genotyped, they’ll be able to take control of their lives.”

“We don’t know if it’s going to work until we try it, and neither do you.”

“Nobody said, ‘Hey kid, where’s your M.D.?’ If you could do it, you did it.”

“A doctor can save maybe a few hundred lives in a lifetime. A researcher can save the whole world.”

“It’s every scientist’s dream to have a benefactor invest in their ideas, dreams, and capabilities.”

“They want to start a new company, with me as its head. With enough of the new machines, I think we could do it. We could get the entire human genome!”

“We’ve worked together for years. We understand each other. We have the same vision.”

“Ready to get a look at the next century?”

“The basic code of the genome is just the beginning. We’re not a biotech. We’re an information company.”

“Contrary to what you might be hearing, I am not the Bill Gates of the genome. At least not yet.”

“We don’t want twenty-two customers. We want a hundred million.”

“We’re going to prove you can do open research and make money at the same time.”

“If you ask somebody to kill someone for you, you’re still guilty of murder.”

“We can’t be held up by one deal.”

“We want to catalogue every human trait. No matter what you hear about – whether it’s eye color, hair loss, schizophrenia, greed, or no matter what else, we want it.”

“I wonder if there’s not another way you could reduce the overall problem by an order of magnitude.”

“Not to put any pressure on you guys, but if this team fails, we all fail, no matter what. We’re betting the whole company on you.”

“It’s my fault. I shouldn’t have pushed him so hard.”

“PE is betting a 5.4-billion-dollar company on our success. If their machines don’t work, they lose three to four billion in valuation overnight.”

“This isn’t about a race with them, and it isn’t about making money, either. It’s about looking for meaning in having existed. To call what I’m doing a success, we have to actually change society.”

“I want to be judged on having changed things by a substantial period of time.”

“Just getting the genome done would be stopping way short of what can be accomplished. It’s the utilization of the information that matters. That’s why I hate the race analogy. It’s the wrong scale.”

“The good news is, we have the world’s attention. The bad news is, we have the world’s attention. If we fail it will be one of the most spectacular burnouts in history.”

“We should point out to him that in the same time period that NIH has spent 1.85 billion dollars on the Human Genome Project and gotten seven percent of it done, over five million people have died of cancer.”

“We have one of the biggest computers in the world, the best bioinformatics team on the planet, and we’ve designed our business model to take advantage of anything the public program does.”

“The science always comes before the business. This doesn’t change that. We can still have it both ways.”

“We have to work harder now to win. But I don’t think any of us would be comfortable if we won by somehow slowing down the sales of instruments to these people. Especially if their having them could help somebody make major discoveries.”

“Will everybody just stop sweating? All they’ve done is double our pleasure and double our fun. OK, so maybe they halved the time we’ve got to work with. But as long as we do our job well, we’re guaranteed to win.”

“You can’t cure disease by looking at the parts list, because the problem is in the integrated circuit.”

“Genes can’t predict behaviors. They can only predict general traits that might lead to some behavior, or might not.”

“We don’t regard it as a competition, which is why our partner company is selling sequencers to whoever wants them. We set up our business strategy so that no matter what the public program does, it just helps us go faster and makes more money for PE Biosystems at the same time.”

“This is money, not life. We don’t want more customers right now, but, yes, we need some clarity.”

“The stock price doesn’t worry me at all. In fact, it’s a very good thing. I’m hoping it gets down below my option price. That way I can buy some more!”

“I don’t mind being Bad Boy. I just don’t want to be Evil Boy.”

“We’re talking here about a guy who sold catheters and surgical gloves for a living. He wears his capitalism on his sleeve. I’m not going to let this historic opportunity get away because some short fat redneck needs to prove he’s the boss.”

“I didn’t say we had to impress them with how far along we are. I only said we had to impress them.”

“There’s no such thing as data without noise. In biology, we call that ‘life.’”

“Look, the worst possible outcome would have been complete gibberish. You’ve proved that you aren’t generating gibberish.”

“How do I lose by having other people involved?”

“Substitute ‘genome’ for ‘the moons of Jupiter,’ and it’s the same thing all over again – greed and jealousy, jealousy and greed. Not that I’m likening myself to Galileo. But this is the biggest issue of our time, so maybe it’s not inappropriate.”

“Francis is an emotional wreck. He just lost his sister-in-law. I’m not going to manipulate behind the scenes to keep him off the cover of Time.”

“Some have said to me that sequencing the human genome will diminish humanity. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

“My greatest success was that I managed to get hated by both worlds.”

“They will never be satisfied. Nothing will satiate them but to see us destroyed and humiliated.”

“What better act to follow the sequencing of the human genome than to discover the cure for cancer?”

“Ever since the publication of the genome, I wanted to move on.”

“As a biologist, I firmly believe that when you’re dead, you’re dead. Except for what you leave behind in history. That’s the only afterlife.”