A Life Decoded
Craig Venter has caused quite a stir in the scientific community, in that he turned the sequencing of the Human Genome into something of a race. He has also been criticised for his part in the commercialisation of the genome. In this book Venter tells his side of the story.
We hear of how Venter has always been something of a risk taker, racing alongside aeroplanes on his bicycle as a child. As he got older his love life had a similar degree of adventurousness. Venter didn't start out along with the academic career which you might have expected, in fact, when he finished school he was rather at a loss about what to do. What he did was to join the Navy, hoping that his swimming successes would mean he could spend much of his time in Navy sporting events - but he hadn't counted on the Vietnam War. Venter's high IQ led him to work as a medic in Vietnam, fueling his interest in finding out about biology and biochemistry.
You might think that being in a war zone would be risk enough for anybody, but apparently not for Venter. He went for a swim, but had to swim back with one arm, using the other to hold off a poisonous sea-snake - you quickly find out the way Venter does things.
On his discharge from the Navy Venter continued his education. He also got married - he had some doubts about entering into such a commitment, but these were dispelled by his brother who said 'This is the 1960s. Most people will marry four or five times in their lives, so don't worry about it'. Venter was keen to get ahead in the world of medical research, and was soon running his own department within the NIH, quickly getting on to gene sequencing work. He would try to get the best out of his team, overcoming the teething troubles of the latest equipment. Unfortunately this meant that his results sometimes couldn't be reproduced by others, leading to doubts about their reliability. He soon became impatient with the bureaucracy of government funding, and the offers he got from commercial ventures at the start of the 1990's eventually became too tempting to resist. He wanted to be at the forefront of research and collaboration with a producer of gene sequencing machines gave him the chance to have the latest equipment. Soon he was aiming at the top prize - the Human Genome Sequence. The 'shotgun' technique he used offered the prospect of being able to sequence the whole genome, rather than labouring away with a bit at a time.
So was Venter's the right path?
Venter caused quite an upset, in that he was seen as working in competition with other efforts to sequence the human genome, rather than the sort of cooperation which is expected in scientific endeavours. Also there was much worry that commercialisation would mean that discoveries which ought to be used for the public good would instead only provide benefits to those who could afford it.
Some people felt that if there was commercial support for genome sequencing then the research done by publicly supported organisations was unnecessary. One can understand the frustrations of those doing such research. Their work was made available to all, but, while reports on Venter's work may have sounded encouraging, mostly all that could be seen of it was press releases. Judgements that the commercial route was more successful were thus clearly premature.
On the issue of patents, Venter seems to give mixed messages. It should have been fairly clear that finding gene sequences was a discovery of something which already existed, rather than an invention of something new. Many people claimed to support this, but felt that they should apply for patents, just in case the patent office took a different view - they didn't want their work patented by someone else. In some parts of the book Venter seems to agree with this, but in others he appears to support the patenting of the genes which are discovered.
Throughout the book though, Venter says that he was in favour of making results publicly available, and his main frustrations were with businesses adding extra restrictions on release after he started working with them. I would say that Venter's work since the human genome sequence was completed supports this claim. While the original sequence was based on the DNA of a number of people, there are benefits from having a sequence of one person's DNA. Such a sequence is available at http://huref.jcvi.org/
, and guess whose DNA it is. That's right Craig Venter's. Making his own genome available in this manner hardly seems to be the action of a person who is obsessed with secrecy.
The book doesn't require previous knowledge of genomics and it doesn't go particularly deeply into the science. It isn't like some books where a writer interleaves an introduction to the science with the story of his life, although it does inclue comments on what Venter has found out about his genes, and how this will influence his life. The book has an appeal as an inspirational work, showing how Venter's drive allowed him to overcome the obstacles which held up others, and to make major contributions to our understanding of living things. No doubt those interested in the sequencing of the human genome will want to read other books on the subject, but this one certainly gives an important viewpoint on the project.
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