What makes science happen? The confluence of politics, commerce, and the age-old quest for knowledge is nowhere better seen than in the ongoing Human Genome Project. Kevin Davies, founding editor of Nature Genetics, picks apart the personalities and technologies involved in the great sequence race in Cracking the Genome: Inside the Race to Unlock Human DNA. Written not long after President Clinton's premature announcement in 2000 of the Project's completion, it assesses the state of public and private genomic knowledge during what Davies calls "halftime." He is in a unique observational position; as a prominent scientific journalist, he has had unparalleled access to the scientific figures involved. Through interviews with HGP director Francis Collins, rogue scientist-entrepreneur J. Craig Venter, and many other scientists and insiders, Davies illuminates the often-tortured processes that contributed to the speedy sequencing of most--but not quite all--of our genes in just a few short years. Shifting styles characterize the different storylines: technological, political, and intensely personal tales unite under the author's direction without ever alienating the reader. The book is a bit softer on Venter than many scientists (who may perceive him as traitorous or, worse, too hasty to publish) would like, taking the position that his shotgun approach and competitive spirit improved the project without sacrificing quality. Conversely, Davies sits out the gene-patenting controversy, offering all sides a fairly equal voice, but never quite finding sympathy with any of them. Summing up his subject, Davies reports:
If the double helix is the prevailing image of the twentieth century, just as the steam engine signified the nineteenth century, then the sequence--the vast expanse of 3 billion As, Cs, Gs, and Ts--is destined to define the century to come.... The childhood of the human race is about to come to an end.
These are strong words, but few other fields provide a stronger basis for such hope. Cracking the Genome gives us the chance to catch up with the present while the future races on. --Rob Lightner
In 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the double helix structure of DNA. The discovery was a profound, Nobel Prize-winning moment in the history of genetics, but it did not decipher the messages on the twisted, ladderlike strands within our cells. No one knew what the human genome sequence actually was. No one had cracked the code of life. Now, at the beginning of a new millennium, that code has been cracked.
Kevin Davies, founding editor of the leading journal in the field, Nature Genetics, has relentlessly followed the story as it unfolded, week by week, for ten years. Here for the first time, in rich human, scientific, and financial detail, is the dramatic story of one of the greatest scientific feats ever accomplished: the mapping of the human genome.
In 1990, the U.S. government approved a 15-year, $3 billion plan to launch the Human Genome Project, whose goal was to sequence the 3 billion letters of human DNA. At the helm of the project was James Watson, who resigned after only a couple of years, following a feud with National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Bernadine Healy over gene patenting. His successor was the brilliant young medical geneticist Francis Collins, who had made his name discovering the gene for cystic fibrosis. As Davies reports, Collins is a devout Christian who has traveled to Africa to work in a missionary hospital. He believes the human genome sequence is "the language of God." Just as Collins became project director, J. Craig Venter, a maverick DNA sequencer and Vietnam veteran, was leaving the NIH to start his own private research institute. Venter had developed a simple "shotgun" strategy for sequencing DNA, and his fame skyrocketed when his new institute proved his sequencing system worked by becoming the first to sequence the entire genome of a microorganism.
Only 3 percent of the human genome had been sequenced by early 1998, the public project's halfway point. That same year, Venter was approached by PE Corporation to launch a private human genome project. He stunned the world when he announced the formation of a new company to sequence the human genome in a mere three years for $300 million. A war of words broke out between public and private researchers. Undeterred, Venter built Celera Genomics with the motto "Speed matters. Discovery can't wait." and an $80 million supercomputer. While the insults intensified, Celera's stock price soared, tumbled, and soared again. Negotiations for cooperation between the public and private institutes began, only to fall apart in acrimony. Then in the spring of 2000 President Clinton stepped in, telling his science adviser to restart negotiations. History was about to be made.
Davies captures the drama of this momentous achievement, drawing on his own genetics expertise and interviews with key scientists including Venter and Collins, as well as Eric Lander, an MIT computer wizard who refers to the public genome project as "the forces of good"; Kari Stefánsson, the genetics entrepreneur who is remaking Iceland's economy; and John Sulston, chief of the UK genome project, who led the charge against gene patenting. Davies has visited geneticists around the world to illustrate a vast international enterprise working on the frontier of human knowledge. Cracking the Genome is the definitive account of how the code that holds the answers to the origin of life, the evolution of humanity, and the future of medicine was broken.
In 1990 the U.S. and its partners around the world embarked on the quest for the holy grail of biology. Two years ago this mission became a race between the taxpayer-supported genome project led by Francis Collins and Craig Venter, the maverick scientist whose innovative approach to gene sequencing sent stock in his private company soaring. Now these two men have announced that the code has been cracked, but what does that mean for the future? Who will own the genome? Who will make billions? Who will win the Nobel Prize? Kevin Davies takes us behind the scenes to find the answers. With unparalleled access to all the key players, including Collins and Venter, Davies tells the complete story of the race. The Sequence captures all the drama and reveals the secrets behind the most important scientific achievement of our time.