ScienceScope

Science  25 Jan 2002:
Vol. 295, Issue 5555, pp. 601
  1. Overboard

    Scientist-entrepreneur J. Craig Venter made another big splash this week: He abruptly quit Celera Genomics in Rockville, Maryland, the company he created less than 4 years ago with a goal of sequencing the human genome. The parent firm, Applera Corp. of Norwalk, Connecticut, issued a terse note on 22 January saying that Venter had “stepped down as president” but would “continue his affiliation” as chair of Celera's scientific advisory board. He will have no management authority, however. One visitor to Celera's corporate suite reports that Venter's photos and memorabilia have already been removed. Celera's stock dropped about 6% on the day of the announcement.

    Venter could not be reached for comment. But an Applera release says that Venter intends “to spend more time fulfilling my role as Chairman of the Board of the Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR),” a nonprofit research center in Rockville founded by Venter in 1992. TIGR's president, Claire Fraser, is Venter's wife.

    Applera chief executive Tony White explained in a telephone interview that Venter and other company officials concluded “just within the last week” that it was time for Venter to leave. “For several months,” White explained, “we've been wrestling with the problem” of how Celera could become a “really serious drug discovery and development company.” There was no falling-out with Venter, White adds: “I'm not saying I couldn't work with Craig. We made a strategic decision to pursue a business strategy, and implicit in that decision is that you've got to have the right kind of people in charge.”

    White says that heated discussions within Celera about the release of the company's mouse genome data had “nothing to do with” Venter's departure. There was “a discussion between Craig and a few members of our board of directors,” White said, and the board approved the release.

    Venter's departure marks the end of a contentious and highly competitive era in human genome sequencing, in which Venter confounded his critics by producing a draft in record time. But his departure may be a sign that the sun is setting on the reign of the gene kings.

  2. Bioweapons Cleanup

    The United States and Uzbekistan are close to finalizing plans for a $6 million cleanup of a former Soviet bioweapons facility. The effort is aimed at preventing terrorists from harvesting live anthrax spores from a secret dumping ground.

    For nearly 60 years starting in the 1930s, the Soviets released anthrax, plague, and other weaponized pathogens on Vozrozhdeniye (Resurrection) Island in the middle of the Aral Sea. In 1988, at the end of the Cold War, weaponeers buried tons of a particularly potent strain of powdered anthrax at the site, mixing the bacteria with bleach in steel drums to kill it. But several years ago testers found that some of the anthrax is still alive, and water diversions from the shrinking Aral Sea have since opened a land bridge to the once isolated island. Fearing that terrorists might try to harvest ready-made bioweapons from the site, U.S. officials agreed in October to pay for destroying the anthrax and a nearby testing facility.

    Next month, U.S. experts—including researchers at the Department of Energy's Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque, New Mexico—are expected to meet with Uzbeki authorities to work out the details, Richard Tucker of the Monterey Institute of International Studies last week told a briefing organized by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C. One possible approach, researchers say, is to soak the 11 burial pits with a strong antibacterial solution.

  3. Backtracking

    The Jones Institute for Reproductive Medicine, which drew heavy criticism last summer when it revealed it had fertilized donated human eggs solely for the purpose of generating stem cells, has changed its priorities. Last week the institute, a private clinic that is part of Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk, announced that it won't be generating any new human stem cell lines.

    The reasons are partly political, according to Roger Gosden, the institute's new scientific director. After a state lawmaker recently introduced legislation that would have criminalized the creation of embryos for research, “my scientific priorities had to become public,” says Gosden. The bill was withdrawn, but Gosden says the institute hopes to secure federal funds that can't go to research involving the controversial embryos. The institute will now focus on animal studies to identify molecules involved in reprogramming a cell's nucleus so that it will revert to a primordial state.

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