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

by James Shreeve

Reviewed by
Michael Dirda

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This is an astonishing piece of reporting. In The Genome War James Shreeve, author of The Neanderthal Enigma: Solving the Mystery of Modern Human Origins and of Lucy’s Child: The Discovery of a Human Ancestor, dramatizes the race between a government-sponsored agency and a private company to map the entire human genetic code.

Shreeve spent more than two years with maverick biologist Craig Venter and his colleagues at Celera, with virtually full access to the company’s personnel and research. The Human Genome Project (HGP) at the National Institutes of Health under the direction of Francis Collins granted him interviews and some information, but nothing like what he was afforded by Celera. As a result, The Genome War depicts the race for the code largely from the point of view of the upstarts, the outsiders, the renegades.

Or so the HGP largely regarded “Darth” Venter’s team. After all, they aimed to chart the genome roughly two years ahead of the government and sell at least some of the research to pharmaceutical companies. Yes, Celera would eventually release its findings to the world—but only after Amgen, Pfizer, and others had enjoyed a first crack at them.

Since the HGP would publish its results in the established GenBank database as the research went along, Celera’s only hope of justifying a $300 million investment by PE Corporation (which later became Applera, future owner of Celera) lay in working out the human sequences and patterns as quickly as possible. To do this, Venter rounded up what Shreeve portrays as a scientific “league of extraordinary gentlemen.”

Or perhaps one might think of them as a Mission Impossible squad or The Magnificent Seven, or Ocean’s Eleven, or The Dirty Dozen. That is, Shreeve tends to present each of the major players in his story as slightly larger-than-life—colorful, eccentric, invariably brilliant. He likes dramatic effects, and sometimes goes in for what some may feel is overly vivid writing. (“Most of the rest of the scientific staff touched biology only through their keyboards. In a roomful of cubicles, the combined sound of their tapping was like the rustle of gypsy moth caterpillars munching on leaves.”)

Most of the time this heightening makes for an unquestionably thrilling book, but I suspect at the cost of at least slightly sensationalizing the probably much duller reality. Here, for instance, Shreeve introduces Hamilton Smith, who figures out how to slice and dice the DNA for Venter’s super-computers:

“On the morning of July 7, 1998, Hamilton Smith drove down from his farm in Howard County . . . His 1987 Mercury Grand Marquis rumbled along the rows of cherry Corollas and silver Civics like an old tug trying to dock in a marina. The car had a long piece of trim missing on the driver’s side, exposing a parallel row of rusted holes, as if the car had been strafed long ago. The odometer read 244,000 miles. The radio was playing—the knob had stuck in the “on” position a couple of months before—and a sucking sound was emanating from somewhere deep in the steering column. Smith didn’t mind, because he had his hearing aid turned down low. The Mercury was among his most beloved possessions. He was more ambivalent about his Nobel Prize.”

This is an obviously brilliant paragraph, but perhaps all too obviously—Shreeve’s artfulness is seldom of the kind that disguises itself.

Craig Venter himself—former surfer, community college graduate, Vietnam Vet, onetime NIH scientist, ardent yachtsman, and brazen egomaniac—is the book’s flamboyant hero, and it’s clear that Shreeve can’t help admiring the man immensely. Venter is one of those people who energizes—or polarizes—everyone he comes into contact with.

Shreeve includes some well-known facts about Venter’s counterpart at the HGP. Francis Collins was home-schooled in rural Virginia, at 19 a graduate fellow at Yale, a young husband after his girlfriend unexpectedly got pregnant, intern of the year at the University of North Carolina hospital, co-discover of the so-called cystic fibrosis gene, and a born-again Christian.

My two favorite characters in The Genome War, however, are the eminent James Watson, of “double helix” fame, and Gene Myers, scorned inventor of a mapping protocol for “the whole genome shotgun technique.” Early on Watson comes to loathe Venter for his entrepreneurial brashness, and treats him with the arrogant disdain of a Renaissance prince. By contrast, Myers—having endured the ignominy of having his ideas mocked by the establishment—has grown into a neurotic loner, wears a scarf and a Polarfleece jacket indoors, and, as the Celera project intensifies, becomes ever more obsessed and eccentric.

A bargain for the economically minded reader, The Genome War ultimately provides three exciting stories in one. First, it explains the intricacies of genome mapping. Second, it offers a suspense-filled account of scientific rivalry and grand ambition. And third, it depicts the benefits, growing tensions, and rifts that result when scientists hook up with big business.

. . .

Epilogue: Venter left Celera in January 2002 after a policy argument with the corporate chief. Since then he has founded nonprofit research institutes from which he continues to ruffle feathers and advance science with his innate disregard for business-as-usual. One of these nonprofits is The Center for Advancement of Genomics, publisher of Genome News Network.

Michael Dirda received the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. He is the author, most recently, of Readings: Essays and Literary Entertainments and An Open Book, a memoir of his childhood and adolescence in an Ohio steel town.

Shreeve, James. The Genome War: How Craig Venter Tried to Capture the Code of Life and Save the World. Knopf, New York. 2004.

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