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It was not always evident that Venter would become such a transformative figure particularly when he was a boy. He was never a terribly engaged student (his 2007 autobiography, A Life Decoded, includes his eighth-grade report card, filled with Cs and Ds). He fondly recalls testing the patience of both his parents and the pilots at San Francisco International Airport when he and his friends, pedaling furiously on their bicycles, would race planes taxiing for takeoff on a remote runway. (Airport officials eventually fenced it off.) In 1967 he went to Vietnam, where he had been drafted to serve as a hospital corpsman in the Navy. As a relief from what he describes as "M*A*S*H without the jokes and pretty women," Venter, with the help of some Marines on China Beach, taught himself to sail 19-ft. (5.8 m) sailboats known as Lightnings. "When you're in the middle of a war, freedom is something you think a lot about," he says. "I always had a dream of sailing around the world."
Like many who live through a war, Venter returned a different man. He wanted to attend medical school and enrolled in community college and then at the University of California at San Diego. By graduation in 1972, he had become enamored of biochemistry and decided to pursue a graduate degree instead. He ended up taking a job with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Washington, walking the mazelike halls of the government building as a civil servant.
As energized as he was by the work, the ambitious and freethinking Venter chafed at what he calls the "bureaucratic hell" there and longed for the opportunity to test the innovative ideas he had for transforming the emerging field of genetics. In 1992 he secured private funding and created his own company, the Institute for Genomic Research in Rockville. Within three years he completed the first-ever genome sequencing of an entire organismHaemophilus influenzae, the bacterium that causes meningitis. The firm soon became a go-to place for sequencing projects, and it wasn't long before Venter hungered for the biggest prize in biology: the map of the human genome. In the 1990s such a project was almost unthinkable, a feat of mind-numbing complexity that involved determining the placement and makeup of every one of the human genome's genes, some of which can contain thousands of nucleotides.
By now, however, Venter had brainstormed a way to automate the process, pulling in supercomputers to do the work of recording each letter in all the necessary snippets of DNA and then knitting the fragments together in a simple and predictable way. If a page of text from a book were torn into pieces, it could be easily reconstructed as long as the tears were made at predetermined places always before the word only, for example, whenever it appeared on the same page as the word and. Venter's system worked in a similar way, and in 1998 he brashly predicted that using his method, which he called shotgun sequencing, he could finish the map faster and less expensively than the government's $3 billion sequencing effort led by Dr. Francis Collins.
To ensure he'd have the resources to make good on that boast, Venter joined hands with global technology giant Perkin-Elmer, forming a new company called Celera, which took its name from the middle of the word accelerate. The Celera-backed Venter and the NIH-backed Collins briefly explored collaborating, but those efforts fell through, and over the next two years the two camps worked feverishly, occasionally volleying in the press over whose method was better or whose intentions were purer. Collins sniffed at Venter's plans to create a genome database whose basic map he would make available for free as the NIH planned but to charge anyone who wanted the data processed or analyzed.