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Book Review: Drawing the Map of Life - Inside the Human Genome Project

10 January 2011
Appeared in BioNews 590

Drawing the Map of Life: Inside the Human Genome Project

By Victor K McElheny

Published by Basic Books

ISBN-10: 046504333X, ISBN-13: 978-0465043330

Buy this book from Amazon UK

'Drawing the Map of Life: Inside the Human Genome Project' by Victor K McElheny

The quest to sequence the first human genome has all the ingredients of a good thriller. Privately funded maverick scientist Dr Craig Venter raced the government-sponsored Human Genome Project (HGP) to be the first to sequence the human genetic code. When the draft code was finally published in 2001, it became one of the landmark scientific advances of the last decade.

With this exciting story in mind, I had high hopes for 'Drawing the Map of Life: Inside the Human Genome Project'. Written by veteran science journalist Victor K. McElheny, it claims to be 'the first account to deal in depth' with the scientific origins of the HGP and its impact during the last decade. The dust jacket promises a 'brilliant' read for anyone 'who wishes to understand how genetics and now epigenetics are transforming our lives'.

I was disappointed. The book is a dull read. I'm perplexed how a Sunday Times reviewer could find it 'racy'. But this doesn't reduce its potential value to science historians and others already familiar with the human genome story. It may be the only book about the HGP to cover developments in genetics from 1950 to 2009.

Mr McElheny is an insider to the human genome scene with, according to the book's press release, years of experience 'reporting in the inner circles of biological science'. But this sadly leads to many inadequately explained scientific terms, poorly introduced scientists, plus allusions to political arguments that we - the reader - know nothing about.

By paragraph one of the Preface, Mr McElheny has already introduced 'genome map' - a term to terrify your gran - with no explanation or warning. Later in his preface, he argues it's 'remarkable' the HGP originated from grassroots consultations with scientists. Remarkable to whom? Someone with science policy knowledge, maybe.

Things go downhill after the preface. Mr McElheny packs his pages with so many scientists the reader can't keep track. Each person is often introduced with apparently irrelevant details from their childhood. Nobel Laureate Hamilton Smith, we discover, had a 'small Gilbert chemistry set'. Mr McElheny never makes us care about his cast of characters as his story moves from research on restriction enzymes - 'scissors to cut DNA into manageable pieces' - in the 1960s towards the present day.

Yet, despite these problems, some scholars may find this book useful. Mr McElheny's story spans more than 50 years of scientific history. Previous books about the HGP's origins and impacts cover a shorter period. The Gene Wars by Robert Cooke-Deegan (W.W. Norton, 1996), for example, was an account of the HGP's early years. Cracking the Genome: Inside the Race to Unlock Human DNA by Kevin Davies (John Hopkins 2002), meanwhile, covered the period 1991 to 2002.

What's more, Mr McElheny has tried to write narrative history with 'depth and balance'. Some books covering the sequencing of the human genome, such as 'The Genome War' by James Sheeve have been accused of 'sensationalizing a probably much duller reality'. No one could accuse Mr McElheny of avoiding drab reality in his attempts to entertain the reader.

Mr McElheny's experience reporting on genetic issues means he can give first-hand descriptions of conferences he attended. He recalls the ethical debates surrounding the development of technologies like recombinant DNA and details the 'technical obstacles' faced by scientists like David Botstein and Michael Hunkapiller.

The book begins with the development of the 'toolbox' of techniques needed to manipulate and sequence DNA, such as PCR (polymerase chain reaction). In subsequent chapters, Mr McElheny describes how the HGP was established and the interplay between the project's scientists and Dr Venter.

The final chapters are devoted to scientific developments after the publication of the first human genetic sequence. Mr McElheny covers the sequencing of the dog and other genomes, the HapMap project that looked at the differences between people's genomes and the growth of personal genomics. He finishes by looking to the future - to plant genetic engineering and drug development.

Boredom caused me to struggle to reach the final chapters, but that shouldn't put you off. This is a worthy read if you want to add to your existing knowledge of the story behind the HGP. But for bedtime reading, I'd recommend 'A Life Decoded' by Dr Venter. His account of the sequencing of the human genome may not be impartial, but it has war, women and 75-pound turkeys on barbiturates.

Buy Drawing the Map of Life: Inside the Human Genome Project from Amazon UK.

Drawing the Map of Life by Victor McElheny
The Sunday Times |  11 July 2010
Long view of the Human Genome Project
Nature |  19 August 2010
Reporting on the Race - The Genome War
Genome News Network |  20 February 2004
The road to the code. . .and the cast who brought genetics to centre stage
Nature |  15 February 2001
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