Friday, November 30, 2007

The Blueprint Of Life

By Jamie Shreeve


On the morning of June 26, 2000, in front of a crowd of VIP s in the East Room of the White House, President Clinton strode to a lectern and declared it a "day for the ages." After years of effort, the genetic code of human life had been revealed: The 3 billion DNA letters of the human genome had been read and put in their proper order.

Standing on Clinton's left was Francis Collins; on the president's right was Craig Venter. Collins, director of the government's National Human Genome Research Institute, had been looking forward to this day since 1993, when he had assumed leadership of the publicly funded international Human Genome Project. But he surely did not anticipate sharing the moment with Craig Venter, head of a private company called Celera Genomics. Two years before, Venter, one of Collins's grantees, had calmly informed the HGP leader that he was forming a private company to decode the human genome himself, and in just three years. At the time, the HGP, an often-querulous consortium of academic laboratories, had managed to assemble only a fraction of the code. Venter assured Collins that he was not trying to put him out of business--there were other mammals to do. While his company decoded the human genome, Venter told Collins, "you can do mouse."

Those four loaded words ignited the most feverish race in modern science history--two teams after the same once-in-history prize, one a sprawling government enterprise shocked out of complacency, the other a high-risk venture that at the time had no staff, no real business plan, and a scientific strategy (called "whole genome shotgun") generally regarded as woefully inadequate.

High dives. Celera's chief asset, in fact, seemed to be the brash vision of its leader. "Craig likes to do high dives into empty pools," a former teacher of Venter's said at the time. "He tries to time it so the water is there by the time he hits the bottom." Fortunately, Venter possessed a gift for inspiring very smart people to take the plunge with him. The same convention-scorning self-confidence that irritated his enemies infected those who worked for him with an exhilarating sense that the impossible was within reach, if they all played their parts to perfection. "Most people want to belong to something bigger than themselves," Venter says. "A good leader takes advantage of that."

While Venter was trying to get his enterprise off the ground, Collins was fighting to keep his from falling apart. The HGP had been conceived as a decentralized alliance of many laboratories, with a goal of producing a genome sequence that would "stand the test of time," as Collins frequently put it. But he realized that to compete with Venter, the HGP would have to temporarily relax that standard. Collins began to push the notion of an initial "draft" version of the genome that was lower in quality but could be finished on or even before Celera's deadline. Risking rebellion from the smaller HGP labs, he streamlined the operation by funneling all his funds to just the three largest. Leading more by consensus-building than charisma, he rallied his often-dispirited troops by drumming home the message that their scientific mission also had a high moral purpose: to keep the code of life from falling into the hands of a single private company. The HGP, he said, was "the most important scientific effort that humankind has ever mounted."

In style, no two men could be further apart than Venter, the visionary renegade, and Collins, the model team player. But what brought them both to the White House on that "day for the ages" was one essential quality that they shared: the ability to make those who followed them believe in themselves. VENTER (left) BORN: Oct. 14, 1946 EDUCATION: B.S., Ph.D., University of California-San Diego FAMILY: One child SAIL SCIENCE: Uses his yacht to collect gene samples from marine organisms

COLLINS BORN: April 14, 1950 EDUCATION: B.S., U. of Virginia; Ph.D., Yale; M.D., U. of North Carolina FAMILY: Married, two children GENE RIDER: Added decals of new genes to motorcycle helmet

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