October 21, 2007, 11:44 am
Filed under: Books, Published stuff

Venter book coverA bunch of reviews this weekend for Craig Venter’s “A Life Decoded” (Amazon UK | US). Venter is of direct relevance for this blog because of his interest in using synthetic biology to save the world with better energy sources and carbon sinks. He’s also of relevance because he’s part of one of the great science stories of the past few decades. Here’s an extract from the book in The Guardian (and here’s The Great Beyond’s take on the “synthetic life is just round the corner” news story that went with it).

First review — Clive Cookson in the FT, who pairs the book with Jim Watson’s “Avoid boring people” (Amazon UK | US):

Enjoyment of the comforts of life is one thing that the two authors have in common. Both were born into families that counted themselves as middle class but were financially hard-pressed. Both were motivated initially more by the joy of scientific discovery than financial reward but, as they saw opportunities to accumulate wealth, they did not hesitate to seize them. […]

Watson, born in 1928, writes – and acts – in a way that seems quaintly old-fashioned compared with Venter, born in 1946. The difference shows up particularly in their attitude to love, sex and marriage. Watson’s pursuit of what he consistently calls “pretty girls” remains largely unsuccessful until the age of 40, when he meets and marries Liz Lewis, a 19-year-old student. Venter, on the other hand, describes sex with a series of girlfriends from the age of 16 onwards, in a manner that would be unthinkable for Watson. (At 16, Watson’s passion was spotting rare birds on the shores of Lake Michigan with his father, a keen amateur ornithologist.) Last year Venter became engaged to Heather Kowalski, his public relations executive, who will be his third wife.

While both men are self-evident egotists, Venter comes across as a more forceful character. There is something almost otherworldly about Watson, as if he does not know what effect he is having on people…Venter, on the other hand, knows exactly what he is doing, whether he is taking a physical risk for sheer exhilaration, such as deliberately sailing a yacht through a storm, or a scientific risk by spending many millions of dollars on unproven DNA sequencing machines … Watson and Venter are the first two people to have had their individual genomes sequenced. Watson has revealed his personal DNA on the Cold Spring Harbor website, in the hope that this will encourage the development of “personalized medicine” – identifying and preventing diseases to which we are genetically prone before they appear. The only exception, withheld for reasons of family privacy, is the ApoE gene, variants of which are associated with Alzheimer’s and heart disease. Venter has gone further, interspersing A Life Decoded with relevant revelations about his own genome. For example, he declares that, of the two copies of ApoE inherited from his parents, one is the harmless ApoE3 but the other is ApoE4 – which can predispose carriers to Alzheimer’s and heart disease. “By reading my own book of life, I have been given a chance to address these potential conditions, because they involve a biochemical imbalance that can be treated.” […]

Watson won his Nobel prize with Francis Crick 55 years ago. An award to Venter for his pioneering work on DNA sequencing is overdue.

Venter cover USIn passing, it’s worth mentioning that while the Craig is an egotist/egomaniac thing can perhaps be overdone, the iconography of the US cover (left) doesn’t help. He’s shown as important enough to block out the sun — and yet at the same time well lit from some other source off to his right.

Jan Witkowski in Nature provides another long, entertaining and thoughtful review. He concludes:

I have interacted with Venter over the years since our first meeting in 1990, and have heard many strong opinions of his character. A Life Decoded is a fair representation of the man. It may even be more revealing than he thinks.

But the differing published accounts of the Drosophila and human-genome sequencing projects are reminiscent of the fable about the blind men who described an elephant by touch. Reading the books by John Sulston and Georgina Ferry (The Common Thread: A Story of Science, Politics, Ethics and the Human Genome), James Shreeve (The Genome War: How Craig Venter Tried to Capture the Code of Life and Save the World), Michael Ashburner (Won for All: How the Drosophila Genome Was Sequenced) and now Venter’s contribution, it is scarcely credible that the protagonists lived through the same events. Robert Cook-Deegan’s The Gene Wars: Science, Politics, and the Human Genome provided an authoritative, inside-the-Beltway account of the early days of the Human Genome Project, but what we need is a record of the whole project by a team of historians with no axe to grind.

Such an endeavour should begin with a comprehensive collection of material, along the lines of Thomas Kuhn’s Sources for History of Quantum Physics. Kuhn and his colleagues interviewed the participants in, and found primary documents relating to, the greatest change in our view of the physical world since Isaac Newton. The greatest project in biology so far deserves to be similarly documented. The principals are still with us, as are their e-mails.

Chargaff called the heroes of The Double Helix “a new kind of scientist, one that could hardly have been thought of before science became a mass occupation, subject to, and forming part of, all the vulgarities of the communications media”. Four decades on, our infinitely more vulgar media has called Venter many things: maverick, publicity hound, risk-taker, brash, controversial, genius, manic, rebellious, visionary, audacious, arrogant, feisty, determined, provocative. His autobiography shows that they are all justified.

While I’ve not read the Ashburner, I don’t find the accounts to date quite that divergent (though I haven’t cross referenced them thoroughly). And more specifically, I think this call for a balanced overview is a touch unfair to James Shreeve, who wanted his magnificent “The Genome War” (Amazon UK | US) to be such a book. However, though Venter provided him with remarkable access to the events and their records, subject only to a three year non-disclosure agreement, the public effort was much less forthcoming. Francis Collins, while happy to be interviewed, would not give him the same level of access to the public programme. Nor would he provide access to records of the “G-5” coordinating meetings that the public programme held at the height of the human genome “race”; when Shreeve applied for those records under the Freedom of Information Act he had to work the request for the best part of a year before getting the records, which had almost all the salient details redacted. The reason was that the records were held to contain “commercial and financial information that is privileged and confidential”. As Shreeve notes in his book, “Considering the concerted efforts the Human Genome Project leaders made during the race to distinguish their totally free, totally public version of the genome from Celera’s [ie Venter’s] commercial one, the explanation sounds oddly discordant.”

My own take on the book is in the Sunday Times. Ruminative extract:

Genes will never say everything about a life, but they will say a lot. It will cost as much to lay down a full genome analysis for a child born 10 years hence as it will to lay down a case of port. And like the port, the analysis will improve with time, as more is learnt about the meaning of the subtleties encoded in our genes, and about how the pitfalls that appear there can be avoided with foresight.

These birthday genomes will mostly be read for possibilities; only rarely will a genetic destiny be fixed beyond avoidance. But retrospective readings will also be possible. It will be odd if the next 50 years do not bring molecular biographies of figures such as Stalin, Einstein, Nelson Mandela, Margaret Thatcher (and a revised edition of this book, tricked out with more revealing detail, might be expected a fair bit sooner). Odd, too, if a well-resolved genomic dimension does not add something to all these stories. [But] nobody yet has the language for combining genetic aperçus with more familiar representations of character and narrative. In A Life Decoded we might sense that Venter’s apparent genetic predisposition to attention-deficit disorder explains something about him – but we are hard put to say, within the context of a biography, quite what function such an explanation has. It doesn’t change who he was, or even how he was. Maybe it says something about what he could have been or couldn’t be, but how that might make him or us feel is not yet clear.

There is poetry in seeing Venter’s genome through the story of the life that made genome-reading possible and sensing that his genes, these subjects within the story, were also, in some way, its shapers. But the poetry depends on the reader’s imagination – it is largely absent from the text. I doubt any writer could as yet do justice to such a view of himself, let alone one whose interest is primarily in getting his side of a fascinating set of events down for posterity.

That said, at one point Venter does manage to convey something of the excitement we might experience when the stories of molecules and men are mixed more thoroughly. It comes when he describes his first experiments on the effects of adrenaline on cells grown in the lab: “I gradually moved the [adrenaline-coated] beads to kiss the heart cells, which immediately jumped to a new pace. In elation, and due to the same mechanism, my own heart jumped, too.” The molecular life can be a moving one.

For those not Venter’d out, Carl Zimmer is interviewing him for bloggingheads.tv (not yet seen)

Update: Georgina Ferry has a review of both the Venter and the Watson books in the Guardian. I have to say that it seems to me that her position as a co-author of a book about the same events by one of Venter’s adversaries (“The Common Thread” with John Sulston — Amazon UK | US) should have been made clear to the reader.

Further update:Georgina tells me that she made such a clarification in the text buit it was edited out.

Pictures courtesy of publisher’s websites


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