INVISIBLE FRONTIERS: The Race to Synthesize a Human Gene by Stephen S. Hall

INVISIBLE FRONTIERS: The Race to Synthesize a Human Gene

Email this review


In 1953, Watson and Crick published their landmark paper on the structure of DNA. Exactly 25 years later, an upstart California firm, Genentech, staged a press conference to announce the first-time cloning of a synthesized human gene coding for insulin. Here, Hall focuses on that second landmark event, bringing to it the same insider's perspective of bitter rivalry and the race to be first that Watson himself revealed in The Double Helix. In the case of the insulin gene, the competition was three-way: On the West Coast were scientists at the Univ. of California, S.F., led by William Rutter and Howard Goodman, and a second group of scientists who eventually staffed Genentech (led by UCSF biologist Herbert Boyer). On the East Coast was a team from Harvard's Biological Laboratories, headed by Waiter Gilbert. The stimulus for the race appears to have been a 1976 symposium sponsored by Ely Lilly & Co., the largest manufacturer of insulin. One speaker at the symposium described a rare pancreatic tumor that could be implanted in rats. The tumor cells produced copious amounts of insulin--the raw material gene splicers needed if they were going to simulate nature. As it turned out, the Hat. yard group got the tumors; the Rutter-Goodman team went ahead with its own cloning methodology; and Boyer, approached by a venture capitalist, agreed to go commercial, persuading colleague Arthur Riggs at City of Hope to accept a contract to clone the insulin gene. What happened next is detailed in an intricate chronology that Hall has spliced together from extensive interviews, amusing records, and explanations of the scientific hurdles and triumphs. As it turned out, Genentech's approach to use a synthetic human gene--building the gene from off-the-shelf chemicals--was a major coup, since the strict recombinant DNA guidelines then in place applied only to naturally derived genes spliced into bacteria. An epilogue brings the reader up to date: A Nobel prize here, new companies there, departmental chairmanships--hardly a failure in the lot. Wonderfully instructive on the science--but especially on the scientists.

Pub Date: Aug. 26th, 1987
Publisher: Atlantic Monthly--dist. by Little, Brown