A Life Decoded: My Genome – My Life by J Craig Venter - review by Walter Gratzer

Walter Gratzer

Venter’s Version

A Life Decoded: My Genome – My Life


Allen Lane / The Penguin Press 390pp £ order from our bookshop

‘Many enemies, much honour’, Sigmund Freud thought. It is an opinion that Craig Venter undoubtedly shares, for he quotes with relish a remark once addressed to him by a government functionary: ‘This is Washington, and we judge people by the quality of their enemies, and son, you have some of the best.’ The grand plan to assemble a complete read-out of the DNA that makes up the human genome – the set of instructions, three billion letters long, that determine our species’ form and function – was billed as the greatest intellectual achievement in man’s history. In truth it was no such thing. The incomparable Sydney Brenner found the assertion ‘simply ridiculous’. It was, he said, ‘an entrepreneurial accomplishment, a great managerial achievement, but there isn’t any new science in it’. That had been done years before in Cambridge by Fred Sanger, who created the methods for revealing a DNA sequence (the succession of letters in the text), and had decoded the genome of a virus (tiny compared to that of a man, mouse or fruit-fly), at a paltry cost in manpower and resources. For this he had been rewarded with his second Nobel Prize.

The Human Genome Project (HGP) was not universally welcomed. Some scientists opposed it on the grounds that it was otiose, for it was already known that the genes occupy only about 5 per cent of the genome, and the rest was variously described as garbage or junk (not garbage though,

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