Book: A Life Decoded

This is the book I was looking for when I ordered Jay-Z's "Decoded". I've admired Craig Venter since the first year of university, and have finally found time to read his book.

Chronicles of an adrenaline junkie
400 pages, ★★★★★

A Life Decoded portrays a benevolent, macho J. Craig Venter.

When most of us were playing with toy cars, trains and planes, Venter was playing with the real thing. He satisfied his thirst for adrenaline by pressing pennies on railway tracks (to his disappointment, new U.S. pennies are too robust to be flattened by trains); by using bicycles to chase airplanes during takeoff (before the runway area was protected by an unscalable fence); and built engines with his friends and their parents.

His science career got off to an unusual start as a medic in Vietnam. He writes that the grotesque scenes of violence and disease spurred his desire to work in the field of medicine after his return from duty. But his actions toward the end of the book indicate that his desire to “help people” would always remain subordinate to his giant ego: an attribute that benefitted both him and his companies later (and, arguably, the sequencing industry) in the political and ethical minefields of human genomics. Evidence shows that it was not a “medic’s benevolence” but a relentless desire to win that would keep him so motivated.

Venter is best-known for sequencing the first human genome (his own genome!) with Celera Genomics. A more popular, publically-funded initiative to sequence the human genome was already underway, but Venter’s company was first to claim victory. On the day of Venter’s historic announcement (which was at the White House, with heads of state present via video-link), 46 per cent of Americans in a CNN/Time poll responded that Venter’s efforts bore “negative consequences” because his superiors ruthlessly patented the genes they discovered (on an unrelated note, biological patents have gotten out of hand: one patent was granted for a peptide sequence so short it could fit onto Twitter). Venter’s rebuttal can be summarised as, “I have always known that only a tiny proportion of human genes have yielded profits. The only viable alternative to patenting those genes would have been to keep the codes secret—which would have benefitted no-one”. Basically, “I could have done worse”.

Venter has always known that only a tiny proportion of human genes have yielded profits. The only viable alternative to patenting those genes would have been to keep the codes secret—which would have benefitted no-one.

Venter’s own genes are interesting. He starts by joking that his billion-dollar genome scan revealed the gene SRY (the gene for testes), which make him (as a man), “more likely to commit crimes, go to prison, be depressed, be addicted, get cancer, be violent, get rich, and die young”. He continues intermittently with descriptions of his genetic makeup: OAC2 gave him blue eyes, DAT1 contributed to his ADHD, MAO created his thirst for adrenaline (expressed through ever-larger yachts in later life), his DRD4 makes him less susceptible to addiction and schizophrenia, and his FTO type helped him keep a lean figure. His 5’HTTLPR made sure he didn’t get long-term depression, and while he prefers to work in the evenings, he’s not a “night owl”, which we can tell by looking at his Per2 and Per3 genes. Most interestingly, he is one of the lucky 1% of individuals who possess the rapid caffeine degradation gene CYP1A2, which eliminates the long-term side-effects of drinking coffee (cancer, heart problems) almost entirely. He describes many more.

Now, I really want to get my own genome analysed. It’s only $399 for a basic SNP scan from http://www.23andme.com. Genetic research is now advanced enough to make the investment worthwhile. For the insight it provides, it’d be money very well spent. ★★★★★

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