The Genetic Adventurer

Most science proceeds quietly. Many scientific problems are tackled by one or a few laboratories and the results are published in a journal that the public has never heard of. And even when science does make it into the mainstream press, it’s almost always briefly and after the fact: the study is done and its findings are reported in a few sentences.

The effort to sequence the human genome—to determine the exact order of the “letters” making up the DNA sequence of our species—was never like this. Instead, the press covered the project for years before its completion. And when the project was finally finished, its results were the first ever to be announced from the White House. While much of this attention reflected the possible medical implications of the work—the public was told that the human genome project would cure what ails it—at least some of the attention reflected the drama of the undertaking itself. Sequencing the human genome was no ordinary scientific venture but one that featured big money, big personalities, and a big race.

The race was between two programs, one public (centered at the National Institutes of Health) and the other private (centered at a company called Celera Genomics). As races go, this one was not particularly sportsmanlike. Instead, the contest featured more than its fair share of political intrigue and mudslinging. Now one of the key players—Craig Venter, leader of Celera’s effort—tells his story. (Or, more accurately, his side of the story.) The resulting tale is part autobiography, part popular science, and part an attempt to settle old scores. Apparently, there are plenty to settle.

Venter’s youth offered little reason to expect success in life. Growing up in Eisenhower-era California, he was a wild child and an abysmal student. By adolescence, he seemed destined to a life as a beach bum. Then Vietnam intervened. Joining the navy, he became a medic and endured the Tet Offensive as well as the horrors of performing triage. His experiences during the war, which included an aborted suicide attempt, seemed to transform Venter and he returned to the US determined to make something of himself.

Attending community college and then the University of California, San Diego, he settled on biology. He remained at San Diego to perform graduate work on how hormones affect cells and found, to his surprise, that he was a formidable researcher. He rapidly racked up an impressive number of published articles. Following several academic positions, in 1983 Venter landed at the NIH in Bethesda, a near paradise for biologists: research money was abundant and grant applications unnecessary.

During his time there, Venter’s work gradually shifted to DNA. Following a series of squabbles with James Watson and other NIH leaders—disputes that foreshadowed his later, bitter feuds with federal scientists—Venter departed in 1992, choosing instead to lead research at a private institute where he was free to pursue his increasingly ambitious projects on DNA …

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