Won for All

Last night, I had to read this book RPM mentioned. It’s not very long—about 100 pages, counting a preface, an epilogue, and an afterward, and it has lots of pictures—but be warned: it’s very inside baseball.

The book is Won for All: How the Drosophila Genome Was Sequenced(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll) by Michael Ashburner, and its subject is the rush to sequence the Drosophila genome in 1998-1999. It’s a rather strange twist on what I expected, though. While the subtitle says “How the Drosophila Genome Was Sequenced,” there is almost no science at all in the body of the book; instead, it’s all about the people and the politics, with Ashburner flitting about from place to place, yelling at people and eating sushi. It’s phenomenally entertaining.

It won’t be for everyone, I’m afraid. It’s breathless and breezy and a little bit cranky, and has a huge cast of characters that are thrown at the reader willy-nilly. The science can be sort of ignored, or treated as a kind of macguffin that is driving all of these people crazy; all you need to know is that there is this powerful piece of information that some people want to make freely available to the whole world, and some others want to commercialize. Here’s a sample of the breakneck prose:

Are people happy? Of course not. I could hear them already: Gerry has links with a company, he will let them see the data first, make loads of money, and beat me to the discovery of the secret of life. Craig will welsh on the deal, he will patent everything, and we won’t be able to do any experiments without paying him money. Novartis has made a deal with Celera and Bill will consult with Novartis; he will steal a march on understanding the decapentaplegic pathway (“what?”—don’t worry about it). Pharmacia & Upjohn has made a deal with Celera; I will consult with them and steal all of the genes controlling sex and death. Pharmacia & Upjohn has made a deal with Exelixis (Gerry’s company). The circle is closed. We are just in it for the bucks. Total paranoia. Thank God that I will miss the annual meeting of drosophilists in Seattle this year. Flybase takes me there beforehand and it turns out to be another godforsaken hotel in the wasteland of the most inappropriately named Belleview. I was getting tired of shouting at Bill and he, I am sure was getting tired of being shouted at by me. Sorry Billy. I escape back to Europe (upgraded this time; I deserve it) just as everyone else is checking in for the meeting. Bill and Gerry can take the heat. Luckily, it is raining.

Ashburner is an inveterate name-dropper, and he’s constantly chatting about all these people he addresses only by their first names—Bill and Craig and Francis and Jim and Gerry, for instance (Gelbart and Venter and Collins and Watson and Rubin, for those of us who know them far less personally and more formally). I was able to follow along with the story fairly easily, since the players were all familiar to me; if you’re one of those people who doesn’t know any of the members of the flylab clan, don’t worry: there are buckets of footnotes to explain each new name as it comes up. That paragraph above has four footnotes to it, for instance, and much of the entertainment can be found in the footnotes. Ashburner himself is, of course, one of those big names—he’s a major player in the tale, and he was also central to one of the major events of the story, when the commercial people tried to lock up the information in a database with restricted access, and it was Ashburner’s profane howls of protest that got the suits to back down.

I mentioned that there is very little real science in the body of the book—there’s more talk about computers than flies and biology, and heck, I want to know more about decapentaplegic—but the epilogue by R. Scott Hawley and the afterward by Ethan Bier do give a quick rundown of some of the basic methodology of sequencing and what those fly genes are. If you want to read the book to learn about flies, you might want to read those two pieces first. That isn’t necessary, though…like I said, you can read the book not knowing what an EST is, and you’ll still be able to follow along. Just pretend the fly genome is the Maltese Falcon, and you’ll be able to cope.

I was thinking that this book should fall into the hands of a TV screenwriter sometime. The way science is portrayed is so often 180° reversed from reality. Look at that laughable CSI series, for instance; the characters are all dull as cardboard, and the science is all treated like magic that immediately yields concrete results in a courtroom. In the real world, science is full of flamboyant and ambitious and deeply weird characters, who are all scrabbling after ideas that they find deeply satisfying, but are often abstract and incomprehensible to others. And while admittedly most of science is done by middle class people working in the same old cluttered workspaces, Ashburner’s book is all about the Top Guns of genetics, and has exotic locales like Crete and Iceland and Zurich, and a few filthy rich people with yachts. The one thing Won for All is missing that would make it a zinger of a mini-series is sex…which he admits in the preface that he consciously left out.

I think I recommend the book highly. It was a fun, short ride for me, but I can see where many people might find it too remote from their experience to be able to relate well, and as a writer I think Ashburner is better described as brash and fearless than smooth and skilled. Even so, it is a fascinating peek into the lives of the upper echelons of modern biology.