The Genome War
How Craig Venter Tried to Capture the Code of Life and Save the World
By James Shreeve
Not since Galileo was scorched by the Catholic Church has a scientist been demonized the way J. Craig Venter has. Venter—who likes being compared to Galileo—led one of the teams that sequenced the human genome in the late 1990s. His rivals at the government-sponsored Human Genome Project, which achieved roughly the same feat at the same time, called him Darth Venter and other, cruder names.
Such vitriol seems inevitable given the magnitude of Venter’s arrogance and ambition. He sampled his own DNA for the sequence and then lobbied Swedish officials for a Nobel Prize. He dissed higher-ups who could have helped him, from President Clinton on down. More than one scientist had to restrain himself from punching Venter at meetings. In June 2000, just two weeks before the near completion of the two genome projects was announced at the White House, a New Yorker profile opened with an unequivocal judgment: “Craig Venter is an asshole.”
In his account of the bitter race to catalog human DNA, James Shreeve shows that at least part of the hostility toward Venter was bureaucratic, not personal. In 1998 Venter, a molecular biologist, left the Human Genome Project because he believed, with some justification, that the effort was progressing too slowly. He founded a new company, Celera, and gambled on a “whole-genome shotgun assembly” approach, in which the 3 billion “letters” of human DNA would be fragmented, identified, and then put together in the correct order by computer. By contrast, the government’s genome program chose a methodical “map first, sequence later” approach. Yet speed was hardly Venter’s sole motivation. He also aimed to profit from the medical information revealed within the DNA sequence. Celera charged a fee for sections of its sequence even as its scientists helped themselves to the data that the public consortium posted freely on the Internet.
Shreeve, who spent two years surveying Celera from the inside, lays out a sweeping narrative dotted with many memorable characters. He does not gloss over Venter’s faults, yet he sees him as a daredevil rather than a devil, a man whose motives were magnificently mixed. In triggering the competition, Venter “hoped to greatly accelerate the pace of biomedical research and thereby save the lives of thousands of people who would otherwise die of cancer and other diseases. He also hoped to become famous, well loved, and very rich.” Yet his vision of “open research,” whereby genetic insights would be made public while a private company made money, was doomed. Shreeve suggests that Venter was too financially naive to see that he could not turn a profit selling data offered openly by the government.
In the end, though, it was Venter’s goading that pushed the teams across the finish line together. Constantly gauging each other’s progress, the contestants agreed to a tie when each was short of the end. And when the race was won, what was the value of the prize? Shreeve admits that “it would take decades or even centuries to completely understand the language of the code—how the tens of thousands of genes and their proteins interacted to create the biological symphony of a human being.” If the total biological symphony is that far off, then relatively simple melodies, such as genetic treatments for heart disease, will not be heard anytime soon.
For his part, Craig Venter has no patience for the spats of “the genome war.” In his mind—and with characteristic bombast—he has leapfrogged over long-range cures for disease to a far more mystical ideal: the betterment of all mankind. “This isn’t about a race,” he tells Shreeve. “It isn’t about making money, either. It’s about looking for meaning in having existed. To call what I’m doing a success, we have to actually change society.”
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Gaelyn and Cianfarani: Spring 2004 Collection
“Springtime,” wrote Shakespeare, is “the only pretty ring time.” According to New York fashion designers Gaelyn and Cianfarani, it’s also a pretty good time to dismantle a bicycle and turn the tires into a dress. Their 2004 spring collection includes a range of chic shirts, skirts, and gowns created entirely from recycled bicycle inner tubes. The newfangled fabric is not only environmentally friendly and harmless to animals but is also described by wearers as “very soft, comfortable, flexible, stretchy, and durable.” Workers at New York’s nonprofit organization Recycle-A-Bicycle deliver 6,000 used inner tubes annually to the designers, who wash, cut, and seam the rubber fragments before shaping them into clothing. Gaelyn and Cianfarani are not alone in their embrace of ecologically sound materials: Corpo Nove, an Italian fashion house, has just designed a clothing line woven from fibers fished out of stinging nettles. Unlike cotton, which requires huge infusions of water, pesticides, and herbicides during cultivation, nettles need little irrigation or protection from pests and weeds. The prickly plants also absorb nitrates, which means they can be grown on waste ground or in garbage dumps. Worried about scratches or stings? Fear not: The yarn is spun not from the plant’s poison-filled hairs but from silky fibers extracted from inside the nettle stems.