The New York Times

November 11, 2007

The Unraveling

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My Genome: My Life.

By J. Craig Venter.

Illustrated. 390 pp. Viking. $25.95.

Correction Appended

Who is Craig Venter? One answer is that he is the scientist who instigated the celebrated race between the government and his former company, Celera, to produce the first complete transcription of a human genome. By 2000, when the two parties declared their contest a tie, Venter was a media darling, a brash, entrepreneurial scientist with a taste for sailing and adventure: the Larry Ellison of the lab, the Richard Branson of biology.

Venter likes this image enough to begin his memoir, “A Life Decoded,” by describing how he and his childhood friends would race their bikes down the runways of San Francisco’s airport, briefly outpacing departing planes while angering pilots and passengers. A little decoding reveals the metaphor: Venter has always been the daring underdog, taking the race to more powerful forces.

That settled, this autobiography is less about self-discovery than about public justification. Venter aims to validate his role in the genome contest, defend his motives, settle scores and recount a career that produced several other scientific firsts. The result is engrossing and exasperating — and it does indeed suggest a rethinking of the genome race, though perhaps not the one Venter prefers.

Venter took a circuitous path to science. An underachieving student, he was shipped to Vietnam as a Navy medic. In a crisp chapter, Venter recounts the war as an unrelenting nightmare of enemy attacks and broken bodies. Out of desperation, Venter once embarked on an ocean swim off China Beach intending to kill himself, he says, before changing his mind. (In one of many sidebars on his personal genome, Venter traces his aptitude for long-distance swimming to the lack of a common mutation causing muscle fatigue.)

Relieved to return home — “life was my gift,” he writes — Venter raced through college, earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry and by the 1980s landed at the National Institutes of Health, studying adrenaline. All the while, he pursued various seafaring adventures; here he details boat races, shark encounters and a storm-tossed voyage through the Bermuda Triangle. Score another Venter breakthrough: this is the first science memoir that should have been serialized in Men’s Journal.

The scientific heart of Venter’s story begins after he adopted new technologies to hunt for adrenaline-related genes in the late 1980s, then leapt into genomics. (A genome is an organism’s entire string of DNA, present in most human cells.) Independently, if not uniquely, as he notes, Venter developed a clever shortcut for identifying genes out of long stretches of DNA.

But he never found a comfortable place in the fledgling government project to chart the human genome and in 1992 joined a new private group, the Institute for Genomic Research. There, Venter and colleagues became the first researchers to chart the whole genome of any organism (a bacterium, Haemophilus influenzae, once thought to cause flu), among other landmarks, and refined a technique allowing scientists to piece together genomes from small bits of DNA, minimizing the ponderous genetic surveying then in use.

Venter recounts this while lambasting N.I.H. leaders — especially James Watson, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA — for not fully backing his work. Yet Venter is even more scathing about the corporate executives he encountered, concluding that for them it was “all about greed and power, not health.” By contrast, Venter asserts, “I was interested in money only to have the freedom to do my research.”

In 1998, Venter helped form Celera to sequence a human genome (largely based on his own DNA) before the government could. Infamously, he suggested to government scientists that they should let him finish the human genome project and should themselves chart a mouse genome instead — an offer he still spins as his “dream of working on the human genome together with the public program.” Naturally, the government scientists did not quite see things that way, and the race was on.

Venter’s narrative of this race is indeed laden with spin and self-aggrandizement (“What eventually made the difference ... is that I led from the front”) and lacks the excitement of discovery he expresses well in earlier chapters. Then again, the human genome contest increasingly seems an unsatisfying mix of political squabbling and public posturing. Neither side had finished its genome by June 2000, when they declared mutual victory amid the pomp of a White House ceremony. This arduous tacking duel appears very much about the glory. As Venter notes, “the genome was the biggest prize in biology.”

Those outside the world of biology might simply remind themselves there is no one human genome. Everyone’s genome is slightly different, and much of the promise of genomics depends on our capacity to sequence many genomes quickly and cheaply. That capacity, still in development, may help us pinpoint the genetic components of diseases, provide us with personalized medical care, and reveal a stunningly deep picture of all evolution on earth.

A draft of one human genome is less a destination than an early signpost on a long scientific journey; the technical advances speeding up that journey matter as much or more. The hype over the genome race thus both overrates and underrates Venter’s career. The contest itself did not exactly revolutionize genomics, but Venter’s aggressive insistence upon faster sequencing methods throughout his career would have been influential even if no such race had occurred.

Or, as Venter claims: “We had transformed the analog version of biology into the digital world of the computer.” So who is Craig Venter, again? Certainly a significant scientist, even if the most important elements of his career may not be the most famous ones.

Peter Dizikes is working on a book about scientific illiteracy in America.

Correction: November 25, 2007

A review on Nov. 11 about “A Life Decoded. My Genome: My Life,” by J. Craig Venter, misidentified the organism that was the first to have its entire genome charted, a feat accomplished by Venter and colleagues at the Institute for Genomic Research. It was a bacterium, Haemophilus influenzae, once thought to cause flu; it was not “the flu virus.”