Thursday, February 17, 2005

Book recommendation

Since we got onto the subject of biology, let me recommend the following

The Genome War: How Craig Venter Tried to Capture the Code of Life and Save the World

as the best book I've found yet on the race to sequence the human genome. Shreeve had unlimited access to Celera and Craig Venter's team during their race with the government-funded Human Genome Project. The reporting is very good on a wide range of matters, from the human issues (Venter is an amazing character, as are a number of the other figures like Francis Collins, Eric Lander, etc.) to the science (whole-genome shotgun sequencing; bioinformatics) to the business and strategy issues. It also exposes how far from complete the sequencing was when both parties agreed to a truce and made their triumphant announcement from the Clinton White House.

Eric Lander (Whitehead Institute/MIT) is perhaps the most impressive figure in the book, although he plays a minor role compared to Venter. (Princeton valedictorian, Oxford PhD in math, briefly taught finance at Harvard Business School, then switched to biology.) At one point a prominent biologist says "Eric's mind is simply overwhelming - he could squash me like a bug." Although the whole-genome shotgun technique that Celera used is based partly on his work, he emerges as their fiercest critic by the end - claiming that they would have gotten nowhere without using the HGP data, which, unlike Celera's, was in the public domain. (I would really like to know whether this issue is resolved now - was whole-genome shotgun a success?)

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