[ Sun. Jul. 12. 2009 ]

About 10 years ago, biology entered betting season. An upstart scientist named J. Craig Venter jolted the genetics establishment by launching his own gene-sequencing outfit, funded by commercial investment, and setting off toward biology's holy grail—the human genome—on his own. It was Venter versus the old guard—old because of where they got their money (governments and trusts) and the sequencing technique they wanted to hold onto. Venter won that race, and not because he got there first. By combining the freedom of academic inquiry and commercial capital, he came up with a new way of doing science so effective that it forced the old institutions to either ramp up or play second fiddle.

With Venter's momentum, biology has continued to surge into new territory, but now he's not alone in pushing the pace. In fact, with his staff of hundreds at the J. Craig Venter Institute, he is looking dangerously like the establishment he raced past almost a decade ago. Another maverick in the stable, Harvard biologist George Church, is a titan in the academic world, tackling the major challenges of genomic-age biology with an ingenuity distinct from Venter's. Both are building on the foundation of DNA sequencing, trying to drive down the cost of decoding individual genomes and—the more radical enterprise—using their digital control of cells and DNA to design new organisms. Between them, Venter and Church direct or influence a major portion of work in both sequencing and synthetic biology, including three different commercial efforts to develop bacteria that could produce the next generation of biofuels.

There's reason to believe that Church has a decent chance of unseating Venter as biology's next wunderkind. The field of genomics is only at the beginning of its growth spurt—sequencing, it turns out, was just phase one. Far from producing answers, the sequenced genome has instead led scientists into a thicket of questions: What exactly do combinations of genetic code produce in an organism over a lifetime? If we can read the script, can we also write it? Leading science out of the genomic wilderness arguably calls for a vision more deeply imaginative than the task of the Human Genome Project, which was clearly framed and, at heart, a code-reading slog. Radical invention—the kind of out-of-left-field inspiration that makes a thinker either brilliant or totally unrealistic—is the strength of Church, as opposed to Venter, who is more of an aggregator, a connector of existing ideas and methods. The script of this new biology is largely unwritten, and just because Venter turned the first page doesn't mean that in the end his vision will prevail. "Sometimes," Church says, "it's best to be second."

The quest for ideas farther afield may be one reason Venter joined the Harvard faculty this spring—his first academic post since 1982. (Venter declined to be interviewed for this article.) He and Church are even members of the same research initiative, called Origins of Life, where they're investigating life in its most basic genetic and molecular forms. Venter's participation is a sign of just how widely applicable the high-concept work of the university could be. More than ever, over the uncarved terrain of the new biology, Venter and Church are blurring the distinction between the academic and the commercial. Steven Shapin, a Harvard historian of science, says that at this point we must "stop categorizing—and just look at what these people are doing." On top of all the daring science, Venter and Church are also conducting a "sociology experiment": "They're making up their own social roles," Shapin says, "making up themselves." All the while, Church insists that he and Venter are "not right on top of each other" but are "part of the same ecosystem," fulfilling different roles. Then again, Shapin points out, "the lion and the wildebeest are in the same ecosystem." The question is, who's the lion?