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Mapping own DNA changes scientist's life

  • Story Highlights
  • Biologist J. Craig Venter has published a map of his own personal DNA
  • It's the most comprehensive human genome, or genetic map, to date
  • Scientists are working to make such mapping available to the public
  • Genetic knowledge could influence people's health, life choices
  • Next Article in Health »
By A. Chris Gajilan
CNN
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ROCKVILLE, Maryland (CNN) -- Biologist-entrepreneur J. Craig Venter is part of a new kind of scientific explorer whose uncharted territory was his own genes.

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J. Craig Venter says knowing his DNA gives him incentive to stick to healthy habits.

Venter has just published almost all 6 billion letters, or 96 percent, of his own personal genetic code in the journal PLoS Biology. From diseases to personality traits, it's the most comprehensive human genome to date. Venter's gene map provides a new understanding of his genetic destiny, according to the DNA inherited from both his father and his mother.

Venter says it's just the beginning of a new era of personal genomics. "For the first time, we can answer almost any question of what's genetic, what's the environment. Our genes can tell us probabilities of what might happen and give us a chance to do something about it."

Today, Venter probably knows more about his own biology than any other human being. But as it stands now, the little that is understood about DNA is related to disease. For now, much of his insight is bad news.

His father's fatal heart attack may have been an early clue of heart disease risk, but his genome has now given him a glimpse of at least three genes linked to increased heart attack risk.

Venter says it gives him more motivation than just a simple family history. "In my case it gives me a little bit more motivation to try and persistently stick with healthy habits because you don't have the excuse of saying ... you know, I don't really have those traits. ... I know what is in my genetic code," he says. Video J. Craig Venter talks to Dr. Sanjay Gupta about the journey to mapping his own DNA. »

He's also identified a gene linked to Alzheimer's disease. It was a surprise to him, given that he had absolutely no family history of the illness. Now, he takes statins, or drugs that lower the cholesterol in the blood, because of their proven beneficial heart effects and possible memory protection.

Venter says he takes all the new discoveries in stride. "I'll be watching it obviously and looking for preventative ideas or hints of it. I'm not afraid of it in the sense that I feel it's a sentence, because I know that it is a statistical probability."

So far, he's found genetic proof of links to blindness, alcoholism, lactose intolerance, substance abuse, hypertension, obesity, even the type of earwax he has.

But the genome is far from perfect. He doesn't see it as an absolute, but rather as a clue. It's an indicator of risk, but not a certainty. For example, Venter has a normal risk for skin cancer, but still he recently battled melanoma.

The road to personal discovery has been long and contentious for Venter. In 2000, Venter led a private team that raced the publicly funded Human Genome Project to complete the first working drafts of the human genome, creating a blueprint for the DNA of all humanity. The public project eventually took 13 years and $3 billion to complete. It was a composite of 269 people's DNA.

As then-president of the private company Celera Genomics, Venter matched the public effort at a fraction of the cost and the time. Celera's genome was a composite of five people's DNA. Years later, it was revealed that much of the genome was, in fact, his own.

Then-President Bill Clinton declared the race a tie, pronouncing the result "the most important, most wondrous map ever produced by humankind."

Since then, Venter has left Celera and has started the J. Craig Venter Institute, which is looking for a faster way to crack the DNA code. Over the years, he has used the Celera work and $10 million to analyze DNA, including his own.

Given his past, Venter says he has carved out an unlikely place in history for himself. He says he almost flunked out of high school and spent most of youth surfing in California. He would later serve as a medic in Vietnam and eventually choose to become a scientist.

An avid diver and sailor, he's just finished a trip around the world. Between his adventure-seeking and high-risk business moves, he as well as his friends and family find it surprising that he doesn't have the gene type associated with risk taking.

He stresses that his genome is not so much about vanity, but understanding the complex balance between nature and nurture.

"It's not just straight-up determinism. The original thinking was we could really go into a preventive medicine paradigm," says Venter.

The idea is simple. Calculate the genetic probability of getting a disease and your chances at treating or beating it are better. Many genetic tests already exist for breast cancer, heart disease and diabetes, but they aren't always that reliable or predictive.

Venter and other geneticists think they're going to get exponentially better at providing more people a look at their genetic map. As the era of personal DNA sequencing evolves, several groups are racing to find new, cheaper and faster ways to map an individual's DNA. The nonprofit X Prize Foundation is offering $10 million to the first team that can sequence the DNA of 100 people within 10 days.

Dr. George Church, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, is working on a DNA test that would identify for the consumer 1 percent of his or her DNA at a cost of $1,000. He says that someday soon, people may be checking their DNA maps as they do their stock portfolios -- constantly adjusting to everyday developments and new gene discoveries.

"You'll have all that information sitting at your desk and as the information flows in you'll say, 'I only want to know things of certain type. I don't want to know about Alzheimer's, or I don't want to know about heart disease, or I do, or I want to know about everything, as soon as it comes in," says Church.

It's a habit Venter already follows. As more genes are discovered, he says, he constantly checks his own genome.

"There will be a tipping point where everybody wants it to be part of their medical history," says Church.

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But someday soon it may affect more than just your medical history.

"Maybe this will be the new mating information. Once we all have our genomes, some of these extremely rare diseases are going to be totally predictable," says Venter. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

A. Chris Gajilan is a senior producer with CNN Medical News.

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