- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 17, 2004

The absent-mindedness, bifocals and lab coats of scientists can belie their extremely competitive natures. Yet when separate teams of researchers converge on a problem whose solution will bring both prestige and profit — or great amounts of grant money — the result can be more akin to the grime and guts of the gridiron than the aerie of academia.

As James Shreeve shows in his new book “The Genome War,” when potential billions might be made, biochemists can become cutthroat competitors. “The Genome War” tells the story of the race — between Craig Venter and his privately run company Celera, and the government-run consortium led by Dr. Francis Collins — to sequence the entire human genome.

The race officially finished in a tie, but the flashbulbs at the White House ceremony on June 25, 2000, could not cover up an extremely contentious competition.

The mud-fest was the furthest thing from the minds of the executives of the company Perkin Elmer when they decided to attempt the sequencing simply as a way to increase their market share. But it became inevitable when Tony White hired Craig Venter to lead the project.

Even at that time, Mr. Venter had a reputation for being brilliant and brash. The quiet meeting he had with Dr. Collins in May 1998, which kicked off the competition, showcased both of these qualities.

Mr. Venter began by telling a shocked Dr. Collins that his team at the newly-formed Celera would be attempting to sequence the genome using an untested method many thought was logically impossible. Even worse from Dr. Collins’ perspective, Mr. Venter said that he expected to be finished in 2001, four years ahead of the government’s program. If even partially successful, Mr. Venter could curtail funding for Dr. Collins’ project, and possibly make it totally irrelevant.

At the close of the meeting, Mr. Venter then fired the starting pistol with an offhand joke. Explaining to Dr. Collins that the number of animal genomes available for sequencing would eliminate the necessity of competition, Mr. Venter remarked, “So while we do the human genome, you can do mouse.”

After that, the race was on. Each principal was determined to win for his own mix of higher and lower principles. Mr. Venter hoped that finishing quickly would give medical researchers the clues they needed to discover cures to catastrophic diseases. It would give him the recognition and respect he craved from the scientific community and, almost incidentally, make him a great deal of money.

Dr. Collins had more than merely pride and perhaps public funding at stake. He also hoped that the sequencing would cure diseases and save lives, but he was convinced that the code of life was not a commodity, and so was appalled by Celera’s plan to make money off the human genome.

The crucible — or at least the petri dish — of competition brought out the best and worst of all of the individuals involved. Mr. Shreeve uses the emotional shadings of stressful events to paint an honest portrait of each of his characters, showing off their brilliance, but hiding none of their flaws. He was able to paint such personal portraits because of the unrestricted access he enjoyed at Celera.

That access also allowed him to describe the events at Celera as they unfolded, producing a volume equivalent to the television show “Big Brother” (and yes, Mr. Venter got kicked out of Celera at the end). Mr. Shreeve shows all of the swearing and sweating that went on behind Mr. Venter’s seemingly impenetrable optimism, ranging from the team’s anxiety at waiting for essential equipment to their tortured attempts to meet almost impossible deadlines.

There is the story of how Celera almost was named Biotrek and Sxigen, and a description of one of the weekly Nerf battles between members of the computer corps. Mr. Shreeve describes the long negotiations that went on between Mr. Venter and Dr. Collins in trying to mend fences, including the series of secret meetings at the home of a mutual friend at which the two finally agreed to call a tie.

The book also includes snapshots of the economic events and politics of science policy that were an essential part of the race — everything from the two entities’ duels in Congressional committee rooms to their trading of punches through the press.

Mr. Shreeve displays a deft hand in providing details that give psychological insights into his characters. Telling of the car of Celera’s principal scientist, Mr. Shreeve writes, “His 1987 Mercury Grand Marquis rumbled along the rows … like an old tug trying to dock in a marina. The car had a long piece of trim missing on the driver’s side, exposing a parallel row of rusted holes, as if the car had been strafed long ago.”

Similarly, Mr. Venter’s house, decorated for a Christmas party, was “nicely done up for the holidays and glowed with candlelight, but the underlying decor still seemed oddly un-broken-in — more a display of lifestyle than a consequence of it, as if the owners had filled the place with their tastes and interests but just hadn’t gotten around yet to living in it.”

While there are a few cumbersome technical explanations, by and large Mr. Shreeve does a good job describing the devices of DNA deciphering. He uses metaphors and analogies well at the beginning and end of the book, but seems to make less use of them in the middle. Indeed, the volume’s tempo almost echoes the pace of events that it covers, starting slowly, then accelerating to a frenzied speed in the middle, and then diminishing again at the end.

The book has a few other flaws. Although the spotlight is usually on Mr. Venter, there are quite a number of minor players — people and pathologies. However, the volume lacks a key to the cast of characters and a glossary, which makes it easy to forget who belongs to what company, and which initials go with what disorders. While not critical to the text, a few photos of the principals would have aided the presentation.

That said, there are enough verbal visuals in the volume to provide a full sense of the race to sequence the human genome. In a sense, it is remarkable that the technology was sufficient for the race to be had at all, much less to become so cutthroat.

But while the devices were new, the motives of those using them were ancient. The same mix of fuels — curiosity, compassion and competitiveness — continues to drive scientific progress. Mr. Shreeve’s book is a reminder, both comforting and disquieting, that the scientific establishment is infused with fundamental human impulses.

Charles Rousseaux is a member of the editorial board of The Washington Times.

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