The ability to sequence the human genome is providing one of the most important opportunities in biomedical research in this new century. It will lead to the development of effective therapies for diseases for which there is currently no treatment. In this important biography, Craig Venter, who was one of the key players in the establishment of the techniques that make this possible, provides a frank record of key events.
As a long-haired, blond Californian teenager Venter was, by his own admission, a rebel with limited academic ambition. He excelled at swimming and developed a taste for fast boats and surfing. Clearly he was already wilful. As he notes, his behaviour was similar to that of many other successful people who grew up in the shadow of a conventionally achieving older sibling.
This carefree life was shattered by his Vietnam experience. As senior corpsman in the intensive care ward, he saw many broken bodies and was struck by the difference between people in their determination to live. At one point, he contemplated suicide to escape the horrors of a war that he had not supported personally. However, by the end of his tour of duty he was determined to make something of his life and returned to education at San Mateo College, which had transfer schemes to the universities of California and Stanford.
Venter became fascinated by the opportunity to study cells in the laboratory. Heart muscle cells on the bottom of a dish could be seen to respond very quickly when stimulating compounds were added. This was the time when it first became technically possible to discover how these compounds exerted their effect. Did they have to enter the cell? Did they act on receptor molecules in the surface of the cell, which in turn passed on the instruction to move? Researchers reasoned that the compound (adrenaline) did not have to enter the cells when they showed that it was able to exert its effect even when bound to glass beads. This led to a variety of studies to refine this analysis and to the first thoughts of identifying the molecule in the membrane with which the adrenaline interacted, a project Venter pursued over several years.
It was frustration at the difficulty of purifying the protein from the minute amounts that are present in cells that drove him to think of first identifying the gene. Once a copy of the gene had been obtained it would be used to analyse its functioning and also to direct production of the protein. In turn, Venter became involved in the discussions on whether it would be practicable to sequence the entire human genome. If so, would it be making the best possible use of the considerable resources that would be required?
Over time, two approaches were developed. The first, pursued in academic organisations with funding from governments and large charities, was thorough but unadventurous. Venter and others initiated an approach that was far more ambitious. It developed and used new techniques in automated chemical analyses and computing, and it was funded primarily by venture capital funds and businesses.
A large section of the book records Venter's view of the process by which an entire sequence was established not only for our species, but for other species as well. Many challenges had to be overcome. One was to be able to break up the DNA into small fragments that could be sequenced quickly by the new machines. It was then necessary to discover where the fragments belonged in relation to one another and to confirm that indeed an entire genome had been sequenced accurately.
This is a very readable account of a complex subject. It is hard for those people not immersed in the process to know which of the claims and counterclaims made by the different groups in different accounts is correct.
However, two things stand out. First, that the competition between the two groups, both led by ambitious researchers, accelerated the rate of progress. Much is often made of the need to avoid duplication, but in a project of this magnitude, competition, which involves some duplication, made for faster progress. The second is that the sequence has already been very useful. Society still has to learn how to make best and socially just use of the new knowledge, but its potential benefit is great.
A Life Decoded - My Genome: My Life
By Craig Venter.
Published 25 October 2007