Competition in research did not begin with the structure of DNA, though James Watson's The double helix introduced it to a wider public

A life decoded  

J Craig Venter 

London, UK: Penguin/Allen Lane 2007 | 390pp | ?25.00 (HB) ISBN 9780713997248 

Reviewed by Derry Jones

Competition in research did not begin with the structure of DNA, though James Watson’s The double helixintroduced it to a wider public. Biomedical research has long benefited from competitive commercial research on drug development and that by altruistic charitable and government organisation. In the 1990s, in pursuit of the human genome (HG) sequence, one biochemist turned molecular biologist sought a foot in both camps: scientific eminence in ameliorating diseases and enjoyment of financial success, especially sailing expensive yachts. Craig Venter’s autobiography, A life decoded, describes his education, domestic life and academic career, but is dominated by the science and funding of large-scale sequencing projects. 

A Californian childhood of swimming and surfing gave Venter (born 1946) little time for science. But medical-orderly service in Vietnam inspired a passion to save life. After college study and a biochemistry degree, research on adrenaline interaction led him to the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) and to envisage utilising emerging technology for DNA sequencing of the human genome. 

From 1992, Venter headed a Genomic Research Institute, independent but linked until 1997 with a marketing company, Human Genome Sciences. Venter favoured a so-called ’shotgun’ sequencing approach, criticised by the not-for-profit human genome project participants in the UK and the US. Scientists at the NIH and the Sanger Centre, including Nobelist John Sulston, would have different recollections from Venter about the international human genome project. In 2000, a draw in the public/private race was declared at a White House ceremony, with Downing Street video link, celebrating the completion of the human genome survey. 

Venter’s private institute, with over 500 staff, now aims to tackle a number of problems, from the medical to climate change.  

A life decoded  is an enthralling ball-by-ball account, rarely self-deprecating, of 60 years in the life of an outstanding entrepreneurial scientist.