What makes science happen? The confluence of politics, commerce, and the age-old quest for knowledge is nowhere better seen than in the ongoing Human Genome Project. Kevin Davies, founding editor of Nature Genetics, picks apart the personalities and technologies involved in the great sequence race in Cracking the Genome: Inside the Race to Unlock Human DNA. Written not long after President Clinton's premature announcement in 2000 of the Project's completion, it assesses the state of public and private genomic knowledge during what Davies calls "halftime." He is in a unique observational position; as a prominent scientific journalist, he has had unparalleled access to the scientific figures involved. Through interviews with HGP director Francis Collins, rogue scientist-entrepreneur J. Craig Venter, and many other scientists and insiders, Davies illuminates the often-tortured processes that contributed to the speedy sequencing of most--but not quite all--of our genes in just a few short years. Shifting styles characterize the different storylines: technological, political, and intensely personal tales unite under the author's direction without ever alienating the reader. The book is a bit softer on Venter than many scientists (who may perceive him as traitorous or, worse, too hasty to publish) would like, taking the position that his shotgun approach and competitive spirit improved the project without sacrificing quality. Conversely, Davies sits out the gene-patenting controversy, offering all sides a fairly equal voice, but never quite finding sympathy with any of them. Summing up his subject, Davies reports:
If the double helix is the prevailing image of the twentieth century, just as the steam engine signified the nineteenth century, then the sequence--the vast expanse of 3 billion As, Cs, Gs, and Ts--is destined to define the century to come.... The childhood of the human race is about to come to an end.
These are strong words, but few other fields provide a stronger basis for such hope. Cracking the Genome gives us the chance to catch up with the present while the future races on. --Rob Lightner [via]