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Q&A: Genome Pioneer Craig Venter Plans Largest Human Genome Project to Aid Longevity

New institute would collect 40,000 genomes to try to crack the secrets of healthy aging.

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Rows of protein data create a colorful sequence display.

Human genome pioneer J. Craig Venter announced plans Tuesday to sequence the gene maps of 40,000 volunteers in a bid to crack the secrets of healthy human aging.

During the 1990s, Venter, 68, gained fame (and controversy) as the head of Celera's private-industry effort to be the first to sequence a human genome, in competition with the $5 billion federal Human Genome Project. The "genome war" between them formally ended in a tie announced by U.S. President Bill Clinton in 2000.

In his latest effort, Venter and backers announced the $70 million start of Human Longevity Inc. (HLI), a partnership with the University of California, San Diego, and other scientific organizations.

"This is Celera on steroids and cocaine," Venter says (see full interview below).

The firm's gene maps will include a map of the microbes that live in the human gut, linked to human health in studies pioneered by human gut biome expert Karen Nelson in 2006.

By sequencing the genetic maps, or genomes, of 40,000 people (perhaps later expanded to 100,000) a year, the firm will "build the largest human sequencing operation in the world to compile the most comprehensive and complete human genotype, microbiome, and phenotype database available to tackle the diseases associated with aging-related human biological decline," it announced in a statement.

Venter and his colleagues—Nelson, cellular therapeutics expert Robert Hariri, and XPRIZE founder Peter Diamandisanswered questions on Wednesday about the new venture:

Why 40,000 genomes?

Venter: Because that is the number of genomes that the two Illumina HiSeq X Ten Sequencing Systems that we have purchased can produce in a year.

Obviously there will be advances and we will get better at sequencing, but that is where we are starting.

Why aging? Do you see aging as a specific syndrome or does it simply cover all the ailments that you will investigate?

Venter: Well, it is something that everybody does (laughs).

Hariri: The easiest answer is that aging is a central component of every disease that we want to address therapeutically. We believe that many of the processes at the cellular and the genomic level that we call aging are related and connected.

How does the gut biome (or microbiome) relate to the human genome? Why do you need it too?

Nelson: We're really excited to integrate the microbiome to human genomes in such an expansive fashion. The microbiome has been shown to be an indicator of disease and a player [in disease] in a way that we think might lead to novel therapeutic approaches if it was better understood.

Venter: Human therapeutics are the goal, whether finding new diagnostic tests or new ways to repair people, or their microbiome, to deal with disease.

Can you talk a little about your business plans? Peter [Diamandis] is better known for asteroid exploration now. How do those things go together with genomes?

Diamandis: They do go together. The era we live in is one where technology can now go after these sort of "moon shots" in a very promising way.

In scope, HLI sounds similar to the vision for Celera more than a decade ago, where information from genomes would be sold to subscribers to lead to new therapeutics and diagnostic tests. Are they the same?

Venter: This is Celera on steroids and cocaine. We would have done all this 13 years ago if we could have.

Now, the information depth and breadth, it is some many orders of magnitude greater now than it was 13 years ago [when the first human genome draft was published]. The technology costs to sequence a genome are a tiny fraction of what they were then.

I haven't been a skeptic, but I have been one of the people complaining that too little has happened after the human genome was sequenced.

Some observers suggest this will start off an arms race to sequence genomes. Is this another genome race?

Venter: I think the difference today from 13 to 15 years ago is that we are all on the same side now. If there is a race, it is one to bring the benefits of genomes to human therapeutics. We all want to get there. We all want people to have much more meaningful and productive lives as they age.

I'm sure some others will race to catch up to us (laughs).

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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