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Alumnus J. Craig Venter Awarded National Medal of Science

Judy Piercey | Oct. 12, 2009

Photo of J. Craig Venter
J. Craig Venter

Alumnus J. Craig Venter ’72, Ph.D. ’75 – founder, president and chairman of the J. Craig Venter Institute – has been named a recipient of this year's National Medal of Science. Venter was awarded the Medal by President Barack Obama Wednesday at a White House ceremony. 

According to the official citation, Venter was recognized for his dedication to the advancement of the science of genomics, his contributions to the understanding of its implications for society, and his commitment to the clear communication of information to the scientific community, the public, and policymakers.

The National Medal of Science, the highest honor awarded to scientists by the United States government, was created by statute in 1959 and is administered for the White House by the National Science Foundation. Awarded annually, the medal recognizes individuals who have made outstanding contributions to science and engineering.
The president used the ceremony to highlight his commitment to funding and promoting science in his administration.

“This nation owes all of you an enormous debt of gratitude far greater than any medal can bestow,” Obama told the award winners. “We recognize your contributions, but we also celebrate the incredible contributions of the scientific endeavor itself.”

Venter and his teams have been continuous pioneers in the field of genomics. Beginning in the late 1980’s, they were the first to successfully use new automated DNA sequencers to sequence human genes.  They then used these same technologies to develop and publish in 1991 Expressed Sequence Tags (ESTs), Venter’s new method to rapidly discover human genes. Since then, more than 65 million EST's have been generated by the scientific community from a broad range of species.

J. Craig Venter (Photo / Victor W. Chen)
Venter signed autographs on his book A Life Decoded during a lecture at UC San Diego in 2008.

In 1995, Venter and his team sequenced the first full genome of a free-living organism, the bacteria Haemophilus influenzae, by a new method they developed called “whole genome shotgun sequencing.”  This first genome led to the rapid and accurate decoding of hundreds of important genomes, including human viral and bacterial pathogens, environmental microbes, insect, plant and mammalian genomes.  More than 95 percent of genomes sequenced have been done using Venter’s methods. Only five years after developing this new method, Venter’s team announced the first draft human genome in 2000. They continued their work on sequencing and analyzing the human genome and published the first complete diploid genome in 2007.

Venter has since applied these same DNA sequencing approaches to catalogue the genomes of the microbes living in a variety of environments. The Venter Institute’s Sorcerer II Expedition has discovered more than 20 million new genes from microbes in the world’s oceans. Other environments, including the human gut, mouth and skin, are yielding similarly important new insights into the microbes inhabiting the human body. These research projects helped to begin the new fields known as environmental genomics and metagenomics. Venter and colleagues also pioneered the new field of synthetic genomics and are trying to create the first world's first synthetic cell.

In addition to his work and leadership at the Venter Institute, Venter is also founder and CEO of Synthetic Genomics Inc, a privately held company applying genomic-driven solutions to address a variety for global challenges starting first with energy and the environment. Venter is the author of more than 250 major research articles and is among the most cited scientists in the world. He is also the recipient of numerous honorary degrees, scientific awards and a member of many prestigious scientific organizations including the National Academy of Sciences.

Craig Venter received his B.S. degree in biochemistry in 1972, and his Ph.D. degree in physiology and pharmacology in 1975 — both from the University of California, San Diego.

About J. Craig Venter ’72, Ph.D. ’75
Venter is a biologist and businessman. He founded the Institute for Genomic Research and was instrumental in mapping the human genome. He was listed on Time Magazine’s 2007 and 2008 Time 100 list of the most influential people in the world. He was chosen “Man of the Year” by The Financial Times. He is currently the president of the J. Craig Venter Institute.  In 2005, he co-founded Synthetic Genomics, a firm dedicated to using modified microorganisms to produce ethanol and hydrogen as alternative fuels.

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