A reprise of the saga to map and sequence the human genome by the savvy founding editor of Nature Genetics.
Davies spotlights the role of J. Craig Venter, whose private firm Celera was both goad and thorn in the flesh to the federal Human Genome Project, headed by Francis Collins. HGP was a collaborative enterprise involving major labs in the US, UK, and other leading countries, with agreed-upon rules against patenting human genes and requiring the release of all sequence data to the public. Celera, billed as an information corporation, agreed to release data quarterly and seek patents on only a few hundred “novel gene systems.” The bone of contention between Venter and Collins lay in their radically different approaches to gene sequencing. The HGP program aimed to map the genome first, and only afterwards to clone and sequence it. Venter’s approach was “shotgun”—blast the whole DNA molecule into myriad fragments and use high-powered sequencing machines to read off the bases, then reassemble the bits and pieces using a sophisticated computer program. This approach, added to Venter’s earlier disputed techniques while still an NIH scientist, outraged the old guard and their disciples—but they were proved wrong when Venter completed the sequencing of the genome of a disease bacterium and a fruit fly. The author chronicles the rage and fear that colored the contenders in what clearly became a race, egged on by the media. In the end, it was the intervention of more than one behind-the-scenes senior scientist and public official that led to a “tie” in the race: a joint announcement this year at the White House that the feds and private enterprise had together forged a working draft of the human genome.
Davies skims over the how-to details but does discuss the future implications of “genomics” for medicine, anthropology, ethics, and evolution. His forte, however, lies in his admirable narration of how science and scientists work in the real world—and what a debt is owed to technology.