Darth Venter’s Challenge

By David Cameron / September / October 2004
June 15th, 2007

The Genome War: How Craig Venter Tried to Capture the Code of Life and Save the World by James Shreeve ’73 (Knopf).

The second chapter of James Shreeve’s masterful documentation of contemporary biology’s most auspicious moment—the complete sequencing of the human genome—begins with this whopper of an understatement: “Ego is a common propellant in science.” The egos involved in Shreeve’s Genome War are monumental.

Often described as the biological equivalent of putting a man on the moon, the sequencing of the human genome was long deemed impossible. But when technological innovations, notably the 1986 invention of the DNA sequencer, made the impossible probable, the race to get the job done was not unlike the Cold War competition to see who could plant the first flag on the lunar landscape. On one side was the U.S. government–sponsored Human Genome Project (HGP), headed first by the legendary James Watson and later by Francis Collins, while on the other side was the for-profit corporate juggernaut Celera, headed by Craig Venter, a former HGP scientist. Venter became so reviled by his former colleagues that Watson referred to him as Hitler. Others, in only slightly less incendiary spirit, called him Darth Venter.

Many journalists cast the race in moral terms: government altruism versus corporate avarice (despite Venter’s vow that Celera’s findings would be publicly available). Shreeve delves behind the headlines, showing how personality superseded principle, and how ultimately, whether you claimed to serve man or mammon, the goal was to win.

Beginning with the infamous 1998 meeting at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories at which Venter announced to a roomful of aghast HGP scientists that his company planned to do their job twice as fast and at a fraction of the cost, Shreeve traces Celera’s rise with such Bob Woodward–esque detail that you’d swear he’d hidden under a rug with a tape recorder.

When Celera’s IT manager, Marshall Peterson, suggests to Venter that they level the forest just beyond his office window to discourage possible snipers, the smooth-domed Venter replies that perhaps a better idea would be to require all staff to walk around in bald wigs so a sniper wouldn’t know who to shoot. The book is filled with this sort of casual, interoffice banter, which reveals both the personalities of the scientists and the low-grade anxiety that pervaded the entire enterprise like white noise.

Beyond all that detail, though, Shreeve has pulled off something rarely seen in science writing. After completing The Genome War’s nearly 400 pages, the reader can’t help wondering if there’s a symbiotic relationship between science and the people who drive it. To fully understand either component, you need to know both. Were it not for the grandiose personalities of both Venter and, on the other side, HGP’s Eric Lander, who goaded each other at every opportunity, the sequence would probably still be a work in progress.

Which brings us to the question: who won? Well, it depends whom you ask. Both groups announced a “completion” of their work in February 2001, and each claimed its draft was superior to the other’s. The HGP team landed the cover story in Nature, while Venter published in Science. But that wasn’t enough to curb the vitriol. Accusations, both personal and professional, continued back and forth, even after it became increasingly apparent that each side was benefiting from the other’s success.

But don’t search this book for any clear insights on the pros and cons of corporate-funded versus publicly supported science. All you’ll find are lots of shades of gray. With the precision of a great novelist, Shreeve shows us that war is war and winning is winning, no matter where the money comes from.

David Cameron is senior science writer at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research. Much HGP research was done at the Whitehead Center for Genome Research (now part of the Broad Institute).

What do you think?
See what other readers are saying about this article and add your voice. 
Related Issue
September / October 2004