Decoding death: Craig Venter’s quest to uncover secret to immortality in our DNA

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Craig Venter, the man in the late 1990s who, frustrated by the slow progress of the government-funded Human Genome Project, launched an effort that sequenced human DNA two years earlier than planned…[is] back with his most ambitious project since his historic breakthrough 17 years ago. He’s raised $300 million from investors including Celgene and GE Ventures for a new firm, Human Longevity, that’s trying to take the DNA information he helped unlock and figure out how to leverage it to cheat death for years, or even decades.

Craig Venter

…With Human Longevity, Venter hopes to solve the problem that ultimately limited the efficacy of Celera and the Human Genome Project. Those two groups produced an “average” DNA sequence. That’s incredibly important for a science textbook, but for individuals, it’s the differences–how one person’s genes are different from another’s, leading to different noses, eye colors and, yes, diseases–that matter.

Human Longevity initially sequenced DNA from 40,000 people who had participated in clinical trials for the pharmaceutical companies Roche and AstraZeneca. Venter says this work has led to the discovery of genetic variations that can be found in young people but not older ones–meaning the young folks had genes incompatible with surviving into old age. Figuring out what these genes do could be the kind of breakthrough that would turn the promise of genome sequencing into a lifesaver.

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