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A Life Decoded: My Genome: My Lifeby J. Craig Venter
Synopses & Reviews
The triumphant true story of the man who achieved one of the greatest feats of our erathe mapping of the human genome.
Growing up in California, Craig Venter didnt appear to have much of a future. An unremarkable student, he nearly flunked out of high school. After being drafted into the army, he enlisted in the navy and went to Vietnam, where the life and death struggles he encountered as a medic piqued his interest in science and medicine. After pursuing his advanced degrees, Venter quickly established himself as a brilliant and outspoken scientist. In 1984 he joined the National Institutes of Health, where he introduced novel techniques for rapid gene discovery, and left in 1991 to form his own nonprofit genomics research center, where he sequenced the first genome in history in 1995. In 1998 he announced that he would successfully sequence the human genome years earlier, and for far less money, than the government-sponsored Human Genome Project would a prediction he kept in 2001.
A Life Decoded is the triumphant story of one of the most fascinating and controversial figures in science today. In his riveting and inspiring account Venter tells of the unparalleled drama of the quest for the human genome, a tale that involves as much politics (personal and political) as science. He also reveals how he went on to be the first to read and interpret his own genome and what it will mean for all of us to do the same. He describes his recent sailing expedition to sequence microbial life in the ocean, as well as his groundbreaking attempt to create synthetic life. Here is one of the key scientific chronicles of our lifetime, as told by the man who beat the odds to make it happen.
"'A great deal has been written about Venter as the head of Celera, the private research company that won a race with the National Institutes of Health's Human Genome Project to sequence the human genome. His role in this historic accomplishment has been both vilified and praised. Now, in a clumsily written autobiography, Venter offers his side of the story, portraying himself as the eternal underdog, fighting for truth and attempting to make scientific discoveries solely to help others. He is opposed in this struggle by a cadre of scientists out to advance their own careers, by a federal bureaucracy incapable of rationally using public funds to promote scientific advances and by the heads of corporations willing to do almost anything to make money. Venter accuses all of the big players — the Human Genome Project's Frances Collins and Nobel laureate James Watson, among many others — of outright dishonesty. Ignore the hyperbole and be skeptical of the accusations, but there's still a terribly depressing story about the politics of big science. Venter also attempts to contextualize the controversy swirling around the patenting of DNA sequences. Despite the lack of unbiased insight, this is well worth reading for the fascinating perspective it offers on one of the major scientific discoveries of all time.' Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"We already know some things about J. Craig Venter: for example, that the self-styled renegade biologist and genome sequencer has little patience for governmental or academic bureaucracy. There are also the biological details of his own recently published genome sequence, including his genetic propensities toward novelty-seeking, Alzheimer's disease and wet earwax. And now we have the revelations of... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) an autobiography, including the manner in which the teenage Venter lost his virginity: 'My Y (sex chromosome) came into its own when Kim had a Sweet Sixteen party while her parents were away.' But how well do we really know Venter? In 'A Life Decoded,' the scientist whose former company, Celera Genomics, once raced the government to sequence the human genome (they tied, sort of) sets out 'to understand one's own life in the context of being the first person in history to be able to gaze upon his own genetic legacy.' It's a fascinating idea: to blend the introspection and storytelling of a traditional memoir with powerful new insights into the interplay between genes and personal history. But it's that very promise that makes the book's failure on both counts such a disappointment. Venter's personal genome, published in September in the journal PLoS Biology, was heralded as a major step toward a not-too-distant future when we will all be able to read our medical fates in our own DNA. The work, carried out at a cost of close to $70 million, has provided some interesting scientific insights, such as a greater than expected genetic variation from person to person — and thus between the halves of our genes that come from each parent. But it also has been slammed as a shameless vanity project, the 'genomics version of publishing your medical charts, fascinating to the patient, but of little or no interest to anyone else,' as one former collaborator called it on his blog. The problem is that reading a single genome doesn't really tell us much about its source. Despite the technical mastery involved, biologists simply don't yet know enough about the links between genes and health, behavior or anything else to construct an interesting story. Venter doesn't help matters much as he struggles to shoehorn genomic gleanings into his narrative. And so we learn that the controversial scientist shares his genetic predisposition for asthma and allergies with 15 to 20 percent of the American population. It's a little like learning that Einstein had flat, sweaty feet — true, but not exactly the main point. There's a bigger disappointment, however. Venter squanders the good material he does have: his own life story. From a California childhood happily misspent in watersports and minor delinquency; to a pivotal, blood-drenched time as a Navy hospital corpsman in Vietnam; to a meteoric rise and brilliant, combative career in the worlds of academic, government and commercial science, 'A Life Decoded' hits the way stations of Venter's life in chronological order but wrings little emotional resonance from them. In genomics, attaching biological meanings to raw DNA sequences to give them context and relevance is called annotation. In writing, the equivalent elaboration is called ... writing. Both are largely absent here. The most interesting parts of Venter's professional life, and the best part of his book, come toward the end of 'A Life Decoded.' From May 1998 until February 2001, Venter engaged in an open race with the government-funded Human Genome Project to sequence first the fruit fly and then the human genome. The story of how he assembled his team and how they assembled their first version of the human genome is truly fascinating — and the sheer rush of their exploits comes through despite Venter's clumsy writing. But for the most part, 'A Life Decoded' is an exercise in legacy-burnishing and blame-casting, and in naming an impressive number of Nobel laureates. Venter rips into his onetime corporate partners for profit-lust and accuses them of mishandling the incendiary issues of data access and patenting human genes; he swipes at his sequencing competitors for stubbornness, deceit and credit-hogging; he even mocks a hapless sailing mate, needlessly and humorlessly, for urinary incontinence on the high seas. The biggest disappointment of all may be the absence of Venter's wicked wit, which he once demonstrated to me in person. I donated DNA to Celera for sequencing before Venter announced the decision to focus on his own genetic material. 'We found better stuff,' he quipped when I asked him what happened to mine — but the book lacks even a glimmer of humor. Whatever the value of reading Venter's genome may turn out to be, a little more of that sharpness would have gone a long way toward making his 'Life' worth the effort." Reviewed by Thomas Hayden, who writes about science, medicine and culture from his home in San Francisco, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
What is life?
Humans have been asking this question for thou­sands of years. But as technology has advanced and our understanding of biology has deepened, the answer has evolved. For decades, scientists have been exploring the limits of nature by modifying and manipulating DNA, cells and whole organisms to create new ones that could never have existed on their own.
In Creation, science writer Adam Rutherford explains how we are now radically exceeding the boundaries of evolution and engineering entirely novel creatures—from goats that produce spider silk in their milk to bacteria that excrete diesel to genetic circuits that identify and destroy cancer cells. As strange as some of these creations may sound, this new, synthetic biology is helping scientists develop radical solutions to some of the worlds most pressing crises—from food shortages to pandemic disease to climate change—and is paving the way for inventions once relegated to science fiction.
Meanwhile, these advances are shedding new light on the biggest mystery of all—how did life begin? We know that every creature on Earth came from a single cell, sparked into existence four billion years ago. And as we come closer and closer to understanding the ancient root that connects all living things, we may finally be able to achieve a second genesis—the creation of new life where none existed before.
Creation takes us on a journey four billion years in the making—from the very first cell to the ground-breaking biological inventions that will shape the future of our planet.
How scientists are closer than ever to not only uncovering the mystery of how life was created, but to replicating that moment
Within the first billion years after this planet formed, a spark of life spontaneously ignited, turning inanimate chemicals into what we now would recognize as a living thing: a cell. Four billion years later, science has catalogued more than a million species.
Science writer Adam Rutherford shows how unprecedented advances in our understanding of life have equipped us with the ability to create entirely new life-forms: goats that produce spider silk in their milk, bacteria that excrete diesel, genetic codes that identify and destroy cancer cells. This new synthetic biology is poised to offer radical new solutions to the crises of food shortage, pandemic disease, and climate change.
By charting the history of our evolution, questioning what life really is, and identifying the milestones in our understanding of biological processes, Rutherford shows how this frontier of science will kickstart an industrial revolution that will dominate the rest of this century.
About the Author
J. Craig Venter is one of the leading scientists of the twenty-first century. A pioneer in the world of genomic research, he is recognized for his visionary contributions to the field. In February 2001, Venter published the completed sequence of the human genome. He is the founder and president of the J. Craig Venter Institute.
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