The accomplished Venter, whose race to be the first to sequence the human genome made him a controversial figure, offers an engaging, albeit self-serving, story of his life and scientific achievements.
In keeping with the book’s subtitle, and challenging the notion that genes are destiny, sidebars throughout the book explore the possible implications of portions of Venter’s own genome. Most accessible are his accounts of growing up in California, where a bent for risk-taking and building things foreshadowed his later career, and of his time as a Navy medic in Vietnam, where a new-found interest in medicine sent the former near-dropout on to college and an eventual Ph.D. in biochemistry. It was also in Vietnam that Venter began his love affair with sailing, a passion he would carry throughout his life. The book becomes denser as Venter writes about his scientific work, first as a graduate student, then on the faculty at the State University of New York at Buffalo and later at the National Institutes of Health. It was at the NIH that he developed a new strategy for sequencing genes and encountered the intense politics, lobbying and maneuvering that plagued the genome effort. Neither James Watson nor his successor as head of the government’s Human Genome Project, Francis Collins, receive flattering portraits, and neither do certain business figures with whom Venter formed alliances when the NIH refused to fund his ideas for gene sequencing. In 1992, with commercial backing, he formed The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR), which successfully sequenced the first genome of a living organism. In 1998, upon becoming president of Celera Genomics, he announced that his group would sequence the entire humane genome faster and cheaper than the government-run project by using automated DNA sequencing machines and new mathematical algorithms. In 2001, the results were published in Science, but in 2002 tensions between Venter and his financial backer forced him out as Celera’s president. Today he heads the J. Craig Venter Institute, a genomic-focused not-for-profit research center that is trolling the ocean to capture the DNA of its microbial life and experimenting with biological techniques for producing hydrogen and reducing carbon dioxide.
Despite an often heavy burden of technical details, the personalities and machinations involved in Big Science make this an engaging read.