Designer Genes: Craig Venter Negotiates with UCSD

When Craig Venter went to break ground at UCSD, he discovered a storm sewer. UCSD officials don’t want to talk about it.
  • When Craig Venter went to break ground at UCSD, he discovered a storm sewer. UCSD officials don’t want to talk about it.

Genomic-engineering pioneer Craig Venter appears to be on the verge of officially breaking ground on flashy new offices on state land at the UCSD campus, but university officials are reluctant to tell the public the terms of the deal. Back on May 9, the La Jolla Light reported that construction of the J. Craig Venter Institute’s “carbon-neutral laboratory facility,” near the intersection of Torrey Pines Road and La Jolla Village Drive, was under way. “We received UC Regents’ approval for the project on Jan. 19 and have had the appropriate permits, etc. from the Coastal Commission and the city,” Venter Institute spokeswoman (and Venter’s wife) Heather Kowalski was quoted by the Light as saying. “We broke ground on April 7, put up a fence, installed storm water protection measures and are proceeding. However, we did run into some issues in that we discovered a storm sewer which must now be dealt with.” The paper added that gnatcatcher and sewage issues also remained. “These things all mean we are slowed somewhat in the process but we expect to begin excavation this summer. When we have all these issues successfully dealt with it is our plan to make an official announcement about the project with details on the building and to hold an official groundbreaking ceremony.”

But when (on May 23) we requested copies of the lease between UCSD and Venter, Paula Johnson, director of the university’s Policy and Records Administration office, responded in a June 16 letter: “These records are not releasable at this time because lease negotiations with the J. Craig Venter Institute are ongoing.” We also asked for records regarding details of the construction activities mentioned in the Light and received this response: “It has been determined these items are also exempt from disclosure.…”

Some of the new lab’s neighbors have worried that doing genetic engineering so close to residential areas may be unsafe. The deal for the choice piece of property could be worth millions, or much less, depending on how much the regents are willing to give Venter to attract the big-name, multimillionaire scientist to the UCSD campus

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