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Bookmarks Issue: 
10-May-June-2004
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How Craig Venter Tried to Capture the Code of Life and Save the World

A-GenomeWarIn 1998, Craig Venter, director of the Institute for Genomic Research, announced that in three years' time his private company Celera ("speed") would sequence the human genome, preempting completion of the U.S. government's Human Genome Project by about five years. Was Venter's effort a race to save human lives? Or did he see an opportunity to patent, publish, and profit from our genetic make-up before the government did? It didn't matter. For the government now had a new mission: to beat Venter at his own game. By initiating an egotistical race with the government, Celera put into motion basic questions about progress: what role should business, politics, and intellectual property play in furthering science?
Knopf. 403 pages. $26.95.

Houston Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"Author James Shreeve does a great job of capturing the cuts and thrusts, the ups and downs of humanity's frantic quest for the Holy Grail of science. ... Shreeve does a brilliant job of making the technical material as comprehensible as possible while guiding the reader through the human, the ethical and the scientific elements of this roller-coaster drama." Alcestis "Cooky" Oberg

Economist 4 of 5 Stars
"Mr. Shreeve's book, largely based on personal interviews, is a detailed and immensely entertaining account of this scientific joust. ... Nor does the book shy away from tackling the technical complexities central to this story, from the intricate science of genomic sequencing to the pressures of the biotech business."

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The special selling point of The Genome War ... is that he enjoyed unrestricted access to Venter's company, Celera Genomics, from its founding. ... It all makes for a gripping tale." David Papineau

Critical Summary

Though he might be admired for his lofty scientific goals, Venter is not a well-liked man. At the time in question, the government called him "Darth Vader." Shreeve merely describes him both as "an inspiration" and an "opportunistic maniac." Genome War pays close attention to this ego-driven biologist. Despite his facade, he comes across as a complex man with deep insecurities. Shreeve, who gained full access to Celera, handles technical information well and reveals the inner bowels of the company. We see the human genome war exclusively from Celera's battle lines, but this perspective (and Venter's often flat portrayal) barely detract from a compelling story about the search for our genetic make-up. To be continued, for sure, with battle lines possibly redrawn.