I finished reading Drawing the Map of Life: Inside the Human Genome Project by Victor McElheny. This fascinating book covers the Human Genome Project (HGP) from its esoteric origin with the double helix structure of DNA by James Watson and Francis Crick through the public genome research and private ventures of Francis Collins and Craig Venter, et.al. It is a testament to the trials and tribulations that ultimately brought together some of the best scientific minds for the collaborative betterment of mankind. This project, perhaps more than any other in history, demonstrates the push-pull and often adversarial relationship between academia and private industry can lead to outstanding results.
McElheny's involvement not only as a science reporter, but as coordinator of human genetics conferences from the early days of the project, gives you the sense that he really knows the people that the book is written about. His storytelling style draws you into the often complex subject in a compelling way. When the project began, the effort required to sequence 3 billion nucleotides (subunits) was mind-numbing and beyond the imagination of most of the scientific community. It took the vision and dreams of the committed few to convince the many, that not only was the project worthwhile, but that the estimated cost of $1 per nucleotide, could be achieved. In comparison, the roughly $3 trillion spent annually on health-care in the United States, this modest investment of $3 billion over the 20 years of the big-science human genome sequencing project smacks of under-investment. Surely vindicated in retrospect, it also serves as a reminder that big-science conducted openly in the public domain has far reaching implications to global well-being.
It is truly amazing what humanity can accomplish when the spirit of scientific collectivism moves it. Individual egos and petty aspirations of glory coupled with corporate profitability can conspire to unravel even the most altruistic of goals, but even these can be managed given the right conditions and leadership. If you are interested in the subject, as most educated people I know are, add this book to your reading list. It restored my trust that the National Institute of Health (NIH) had the necessary guidance and noble aspirations worthy of our nation.