From science journalist Wickelgren, the blow-by-blow drama of how government and private enterprise finally came together to (separately) publish their drafts of the human genome.
At first, the thought of doing Big Biology—mapping and sequencing all three billion bases in the human genome—was anathema to scientists, who thought such a project would be tedious, useless, and a waste of time, not to mention a drain on funding for their own projects. But when the Department of Energy bought the idea, National Institutes of Health Director James Wyngaarden wasn’t about to let them run with it. He recruited James Watson to start the ball rolling, but Watson ran into conflict with Wyngaardens’s successor, Bernadine Healy, over the issue of whether the new “expressed sequence tags” that NIH scientist J. Craig Venter was using to trap parts of genes could be patented. Healy liked the idea; Watson scoffed—and left. So did Venter. Healy then wooed Francis Collins to take Watson’s job; Venter set up his own shop with venture capital. For the rest of the decade the battle raged: NIH pursued a conservative approach, while Venter opted for automated gene-sequencing machines and a whole-genome “shotgun” approach, counting on software to string bits of sequence together in the right order. Innovator and gadfly Venter drove Collins up the wall, but he forced NIH to change tactics and speed up. Ultimately, cooler heads (including President Clinton’s) were able to stage a joint White House announcement of the rivals’ genome successes on June 26, 2000. Wickelgren’s account covers the many intricate business arrangements, personality clashes, and cameos of other gene ventures, such as the one that uses Iceland’s population health database to look for genes. She also includes Venter’s recent confession that it was his own genome that his company sequenced.
A wonderful lesson on how the march of science is driven by the sheer forces of emotion and motivation as much as by ingenious ideas.