A chronicle of the race to map and sequence the human genome that pitted the government against private industry, no holds barred.
For government read Francis Collins at the National Institutes of Health, three other major genome labs in the US, and one in the UK funded by the Wellcome Trust. Private industry was Celera, the firm headed by former NIH-er J. Craig Venter with the aim of beating the feds for the greater glory of mankind—and profit, too. Science writer Shreeve (The Neandertal Enigma, 1995, etc.) was given unlimited access to Celera throughout, so the text largely tells Venter’s story and abounds with verbatim dialogue and witty descriptions of the principals: how they dressed, the jokes they told, the Sturm und Drang that accompanied triumphs and setbacks. There’s plenty of high drama here, especially among the extraordinary geeks who wrote the computer programs. Celera’s “whole genome shotgun” approach, in which the total human DNA is blasted into a gazillion fragments and then sequenced and ordered, competed against the government’s “map first/sequence later” approach, in which DNA landmarks are mapped on each chromosome, followed by sequencing to fill in the gaps. Government scientists thought Venter was crazy and resented the privatizing of genes. Venter was so sure he would bag the human genome first that he turned to Collins at a celebrated meeting and suggested “you can do mouse.” Neither Collins nor Venter and his staff, particularly the business side, come off nobly. Indeed, it may shock the naïve to learn that government officials were capable of end-runs and leaks to demonize Venter. The race ended in a carefully staged tie with Clinton and (via satellite) Tony Blair presiding over a smiling Collins and an affable Venter in the White House. But the acrimony lives on. Celera morphed into a drug development company and fired Venter, who started a new firm. Stay tuned.
The definitive account of one of the most memorable events in medical history.