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

James Shreeve
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)

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Book Description

June 28, 2005 0345433742 978-0345433749
The long-awaited story of the science, the business, the politics, the intrigue behind the scenes of the most ferocious competition in the history of modern science—the race to map the human genome.
On May 10, 1998, biologist Craig Venter, director of the Institute for Genomic Research, announced that he was forming a private company that within three years would unravel the complete genetic code of human life—seven years before the projected finish of the U.S. government’s Human Genome Project. Venter hoped that by decoding the genome ahead of schedule, he would speed up the pace of biomedical research and save the lives of thousands of people. He also hoped to become very famous and very rich. Calling his company Celera (from the Latin for “speed”), he assembled a small group of scientists in an empty building in Rockville, Maryland, and set to work.
At the same time, the leaders of the government program, under the direction of Francis Collins, head of the National Human Genome Research Institute at the National Institutes of Health, began to mobilize an unexpectedly unified effort to beat Venter to the prize—knowledge that had the potential to revolutionize medicine and society.

The stage was set for one of the most thrilling—and important—dramas in the history of science. The Genome War is the definitive account of that drama—the race for the greatest prize biology has had to offer, told by a writer with exclusive access to Venter’s operation from start to finish. It is also the story of how one man’s ambition created a scientific Camelot where, for a moment, it seemed that the competing interests of pure science and commercial profit might be gloriously reconciled—and the national repercussions that resulted when that dream went awry.


From the Hardcover edition.

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The Genome War: How Craig Venter Tried to Capture the Code of Life and Save the World + Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life + A Life Decoded: My Genome: My Life
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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.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books (June 28, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0345433742
  • ISBN-13: 978-0345433749
  • Product Dimensions: 8 x 5.2 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #133,167 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
69 of 71 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars And now for the other side 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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31 of 33 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A complex story well told 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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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Pure joy! A science writing masterpiece. 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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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating and exciting journey! 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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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Unveiling the meaning of life 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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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Read - Insightfull science mixed with dram
This is a extremely well written book. It provides the layperson with an understanding of the importance of the Genome science, and understanding of the political battles and... Read more
Published 5 months ago by rboring
5.0 out of 5 stars 5 star
Cuz Craig venter is cute :) and thanks for having humanity's back yo! It's that crazy sparkly in the eye that moves us forward ;)
Published 16 months ago by K. Andrews
5.0 out of 5 stars Nice book
I think the book was nicely written. The author did a good job introducing the story behind the genome project without demonizing or glorifying major contributors. Read more
Published 19 months ago by Hasan Alhaddad
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the best books I've ever read
The other comments are spot on, and I wanted to add to their chorus. I read this book while doing research at UC Berkeley, and it is only one of two books in my life that I was... Read more
Published on June 11, 2012 by Duke Cal
5.0 out of 5 stars A landmark.
This book, based on hundreds of hours of personal attendance at meetings and discussions among Celera staff and many interviews with HGP participants, will become a classic in... Read more
Published on October 23, 2010 by John Robinson
5.0 out of 5 stars Not far from thriller
This book describes the race to sequence human genome. Main competitors are private sector (represented by Venter) and government funded consortium. Read more
Published on July 2, 2010 by M. G.
5.0 out of 5 stars Candid and informative look at the race for one of the greatest...
The decoding of the entire human DNA has been rightly considered the most important scientific achievement of the start of end of twentieth and the beginning of twenty-first... Read more
Published on November 9, 2009 by Dr. Bojan Tunguz
5.0 out of 5 stars Great book, beautifully written story
I was thrilled to read the story of how scientists like Venter, Collins, Adams, Lander, Myers and others finally managed to publish the human DNA genome sequence. Read more
Published on February 8, 2009 by Spiros
5.0 out of 5 stars Scientific journalism at it's best
I picked up this book because I realized that I knew next to nothing about the human genome--one of the most significant scientific accomplishments of the century. Read more
Published on July 24, 2007 by Dr. David Reynolds
5.0 out of 5 stars Hard to put down!
You don't need to be a scientist to be captivated by this book. This is a riveting story of the intersection of vision, ego, politics and the battle between commercial interests... Read more
Published on October 14, 2005 by Keith R. Dennis
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