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The Genome War: How Craig Venter Tried to Capture the Code of Life and Save the World

25 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0345433749
ISBN-10: 0345433742
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Editorial Reviews

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.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books (June 28, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0345433742
  • ISBN-13: 978-0345433749
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.9 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (25 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #261,136 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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83 of 86 people found the following review helpful By Granger Sutton on January 30, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Several books have already covered many aspects of the race to sequence the human genome. These books were either written by outsiders with limitted access or in the case of The Common Thread by an insider from the public human genome project. For the first time this book gives the perspective of someone who had intimate access to the people, premises and meetings at Celera Genomics. As an insider at Celera I can vouch for the accuracy of the events covered in the book that I was present for as well as the spirit of the endeavor captured by this book. While I am undoubtedly biased, I found the quality of the narative for this book to be better than that of its rivals and the content more compelling. Shreeve also covers the concurrent public effort and does a nice job of explaining many of the technical challenges in an understandable fashion, but what is unique to this book is the story from behind the scenes at Celera as well as some in depth descriptions of the people involved. If you are at all interested in the whole story about this moment in history you need to read this book!
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37 of 39 people found the following review helpful By Bosco Ho on May 31, 2004
Format: Hardcover
This is a ferciously well-written account of the race to map the human genome, one of the most sordid and expensive races in the history of science. Virtually alone amongst the books available out there on the genome race, this book tells the story from the point of view of Craig Venter. Not only that, but James Shreeve had a complete fly-on-the-wall view of the inner workings of Celera, allowing Shreeve to give a full-blooded account of the implosion of Venter's dream, that of becoming the Bill Gates of Biotech.
Shreeve has done the impossible by pulling the threads of this immense story into a tight coherent narrative. At the end of the story, we understand how Venter ended up in the embarassing situation of negociating a so-called "tie" in the race for the human genome. Shreeve has a novelistic eye for detail in painting memorable portraits of the many people involved in the story. The science is vividly introduced when needed, but the complex financial and political moves are also explicated with authority. This is very very good writing.
Although Craig Venter has often been demonized amongst scientific circles, it was always an open question whether Venter was the devil incarnate, or an incredibly naive scientist who made one stupid faustian bargain after another. While there is no doubt that Venter is a brilliant man, Shreeve' account portrays Venter as a financial masochist, a victim of financial forces beyond his understanding.
In the preface, Shreeve explained that he had originally wanted a balanced account of the race as he tried to get access to the head of the public Human Genome Project, Francis Collins. He was refused. Because of that, Shreeve has structured the book as a character study of Venter, where we are privy to all his inner trials and tribulations.
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19 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on March 1, 2004
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
If you read only one science book this year, it has to be James Shreeve's inside view of the race to sequence the human genome. The story of this tumultuous competition between the prestigious Human Genome Project and the brash visionary Craig Venter is a joy ride. Shreeve's irreverent, charming and ultimately thrilling tale is a masterpiece of science writing. The white coats (and white hats) drop away in this book as Shreeve reveals the majesty of science for what it has always been, a very human story. Bravo!
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Igor Faynshteyn on September 8, 2005
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Firstly, I haven't even finished this book at the time of my writing this review, but I could no longer wait to comment on it.

The distinguished feature of this book is its style of writing. It is incredibly simple and straight forward, without any unncessary twist of language or logic. Although this is a depiction of the whole story behind the Human Genome Project, it reads like an epic tale of a breathtaking journey.

James Shreeve gives a close account of all the events that led up to sequencing of human genome, including politics, science, business, legal matters and personal relations. What's more, is that a lay reader who understands nothing about gene or molecular biology can learn a whole lot of things he didn't know before. While the book is not technical in biological and other scientific explanations, it is sufficient to explain to the lay reader about genes, their importance as well as their pharamaceutical value.

This book, like other reviewers have mentioned, is truly hard to put down. Highly recommended to everyone!!
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By M S Rumsey on July 2, 2005
Format: Hardcover
This book is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the future of science, medicine, and technology. Though I have been intrigued with the human genome project and the mapping of other life forms, I had never understood the process or knew the key players in the epic search to do so. James Shreeves' masterful account of this landmark achievement brings the complex and compelling venture into sharp focus. His narrative includes not only colorful and insightful quotes from those involved on all levels, but also offers cogent explanations of the technical and scientific issues in breakthrough biological data-processing that will eventually change all our lives.
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