From Publishers Weekly
In May 1998, biologist Craig Venter announced that he was founding a company, Celera, that would sequence the genome by 2001, scooping the government's Human Genome Project by four years. This inflammatory announcement sparked a race that was as much about scientific ego and public recognition as about unlocking the so-called book of life. Shreeve (Nature) focuses on the tensions between academia and industry, and the rancor that ensued when Venter, who had previously headed a nonprofit research institute, changed camps. The synthesis of business and science posed new questions: can one patent the entire genome? if so, is protection of intellectual property antithetical to the advance of science? Industry is controlled by the bottom line; academia is chained to the politicians who control funding. Both models must battle a public that doesn't understand the intricacies of the research. Add to this the race to make one of the ultimate discoveries, and you get a mudslinging battle of egos. To back this up, Shreeve gives a healthy dose of the molecular biology involved in clear and vivid terms. He gives readers a fly-on-the-wall view of the scientific posturing and agonizing work behind the revelation of the genome's sequence. Shreeve is more concerned with providing a good yarn than answering the questions these events provokes, and the narrative meanders at times, but it gives a compelling look at the politics and business interests that drive science.
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From The New England Journal of Medicine
On Charles Darwin's birthday -- February 12 -- in 2001, two groups of scientists announced simultaneously that the human genome sequence had been completed. The public consortium, involving teams from six countries, published its results in Nature and made them immediately available on the Internet. Craig Venter's company, Celera Genomics, published its paper in Science. Those announcements, although premature (only two rough drafts were available, accompanied by some preliminary analyses), marked one of the few uncontroversial moments in the quest for the human genome sequence. Almost everything else, from the ownership of the results to the molecular and statistical methods used, was the subject of sharp conflict. The title of this book, The Genome War, is only partly exaggerated. No casualties were reported, but all the psychological ingredients of a war were present and are documented in the book. The subtitle is a joke, I hope. The Genome War has something in common with Les Liaisons Dangereuses. In Laclos's novel, the apparent goal of the characters -- to seduce a human being -- is little more than a pretext for a cruel game of power. Two centuries later the pretext has become grander -- the goal no longer centers on a single person, but on the DNA of the species -- but the game is no less cruel. Through 26 dense chapters, Shreeve displays for us the intricate game of personalities and ambitions that ultimately led to the completion of the Human Genome Project. Great stories need great characters. Shreeve chose Craig Venter, and in this choice lies the appeal of the book as well as its main limitation. Venter, or at least the Venter whom Shreeve describes, is the herald of glamour, efficiency, and free enterprise. He enters the book onboard his yacht, and from that moment on, any scientist with "home-cut hair" who wears "whatever old sweater and slacks first presented themselves to him on waking up" has a hard time. Big projects, big money, big rewards for the investors; everything related to Venter is formidable, never mind that certain pages of the book are too much reminiscent, for my taste, of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. On the other hand, to offer a suitable stage for such a character, Shreeve continuously has to create dramatic situations. Often he does so by reporting private conversations and very personal thoughts, which in many cases he cannot have learned from the horse's mouth. As a result, the readers simply do not understand what cocktail of fiction and nonfiction they actually have in their hands. More important, crucial aspects of the story and other key figures -- notably John Sulston, the head of genome sequencing at Britain's Sanger Institute -- are left in the shadows. I doubt that the average reader will realize how important it has been to ensure that the human DNA sequence remains freely available to all (despite and against Venter's wishes). Far too few words are spent to explain that Celera could put together its results only by using the data produced and made available to all by the public consortium. In brief, this is not the most balanced or rigorous book on the Human Genome Project. However, some of its pages are worth reading. I liked this image of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory: "In the hallways and stairwells hang photographs of the original apostles of the new science: Delbruck himself, Salvador Luria, Crick and Watson, Barbara McClintock, Jacques Monod, Alfred Hershey . . . forever young and cocksure, their eyes bright from the birth of ideas that will take their older, grayer selves to Stockholm." Guido Barbujani
Copyright © 2004 Massachusetts Medical Society. All rights reserved. The New England Journal of Medicine is a registered trademark of the MMS.
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