Maverick scientist J. Craig Venter has done it again. It was just a few years ago that Dr. Venter announced that the human genome sequenced by Celera Genomics was in fact, mostly his own. And now, Venter has revealed a second twist in his genomic self-examination. Venter was discussing his Global Ocean Voyage, in which he used his personal yacht to collect ocean water samples from around the world. He then used large filtration units to collect microbes from the water samples which were then brought back to his high tech lab in Rockville, MD where he used the same methods that were used to sequence the human genome to study the genomes of the 1000s of ocean dwelling microbes found in each sample. In discussing the sampling methods, Venter let slip his latest attack on the standards of science – some of the samples were in fact not from the ocean, but were from microbial habitats in and on his body.
“The human microbiome is the next frontier,” Dr. Venter said. “The ocean voyage was just a cover. My main goal has always been to work on the microbes that live in and on people. And now that my genome is nearly complete, why not use myself as the model for human microbiome studies as well. ”
It is certainly true that in the last few years, the microbes that live in and on people have become a hot research topic. So hot that the same people who were involved in the race to sequence the human genome have been involved in this race too. Francis Collins, Venter main competitor and still the director of the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), recently testified before Congress regarding this type of work. He said, “There are more bacteria in the human gut than human cells in the entire human body… The human microbiome project represents an exciting new research area for NHGRI.” Other minor players in the public’s human genome effort, such as Eric Lander at the Whitehead Institute and George Weinstock at Baylor College of Medicine are also trying to muscle their way into studies of the human microbiome.
But Venter was not going to have any of this. “This time, I was not going to let them know I was coming. There would be no artificially declared tie. We set up a cutting edge human microbiome sampling system on the yacht, and then headed out to sea. They never knew what hit them. Now I have finished my microbiome.”
Reactions among scientists range from amusement to indifference, most saying that it is unimportant whose microbiome was sequenced. But a few scientists expressed disappointment that Dr. Venter had once again subverted the normal system of anonymity. Recent human microbome studies by other researchers have all involved anonymous donors. Jeff Gordon, at the Washington University in St. Louis expressed astonishment, “I have to fill out about 200 forms for every sample. It takes years to get anything done. And now Venter sails away with the prize. All I can say is, I will never listen to one of my review boards again.”
Venter had hinted at the possibility that something was amiss in an interview he gave last week for the BBC News. He said “Most of the samples we studied were from the ocean but a few were from people.” When the interviewer seemed stunned, Doug Rusch, one of Venter’s collaborators stepped in and said “Collected with the help of other people.”
Venter was apparently spurred to make the admission today that many of the samples were in fact from his own microbiome due to a video that surfaced on YouTube showing Jeff Hoffman, the person responsible for collecting the water samples, performing a tooth scraping of Venter and then replacing the ocean water filter with Venter’s tooth sample.
Venter said the YouTube video was immaterial, “Well, we wanted to wait a few more weeks to have the papers describing the human microbiome published. But in the interest of human health we are deciding to make the announcement today.”
Unlike with the human genome data however, Venter says all of the data from his personal microbiome will be made publicly available with no restrictions. “If there is one lesson I have learned it is that open access is better than closed access. The more people can access my microbiome, the more they will help me understand myself. Plus, unlike Collins and Lander, who publish only in fee-for access journals, we will be publishing our analysis in the inaugural issue of a new Open Access journal that is a joint effort between the Public Library of Science and Nature. It will be called PLoN, the Public Library of Nature.”
In making his microbiome available, Venter has yet again abandoned his genetic privacy as he did when making his own genome available. Interestingly, the microbiome helps explain one of the first findings that was announced regarding his own genome. Venter said that analysis of the samples that came from his intestine reveal that microbes may explain why even though he has an apoE4 allele in his own genome (which is associated with abnormal fat metabolism) he does not need to take fat-lowering drugs. “Apparently, I have some really good fat digesters living in my gut. They make up for what is missing in my own genome.”
Dr. Venter's reason for having his own microbiome sequenced, he said in the interview was in part scientific curiosity -- ''How could one not want to know about one's own microbes?'' As to opening himself to the accusation of egocentricity, he said, ''I've been accused of that so many times, I've gotten over it.''
The key question that remains is – which of the samples were really from the ocean and which are from Venter. Venter said “Our funding agencies, including the DOE and the Moore Foundation, have agreed that we should not explicitly reveal which samples are which as this will encourage people to develop better methods of analyzing such complex mixtures of different microbes. Next week we will be announcing an X-prize award for the person who can identify which samples are mine and where they came from in me.”
Rob Edwards, a freelance microbial genomics expert says “It won’t be difficult to tell which are which. In fact, we had already identified an anomalous sample from Venter’s previous ocean sampling work, but nobody would listen to us.”
Jonathan Eisen, an evolutionary biologist who used to work for Venter says “I am certain that a few creative evolutionary analyses can reveal which sample is which. In fact, we are starting analyzing the samples already in anticipation of the X-prize announcement.”
Others are not so confident. Ed Delong, an ocean microbiology expert from MIT says “We have spent years carefully selecting our ocean samples to make sure they are not contaminated with sewage from cruise ships or from city drains. And now this – a purposeful mixture of ocean and human. It could take years to clean up the mess.”
Venter does not seem concerned. “If nobody can figure out which sample is from me and which is from the ocean, then we have no hope of making any progress in studies of either human microbiomes or oceans.”
More importantly, many scientists want to know what Venter will do next. Some want to know so that they can make sure to stay out of the way. Others probably relish the potential to go head to head with Venter. In this regard, Venter is not shy. “Biofuels. There is a great future in biofuels.”