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Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead

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When J. Craig Venter, a pioneer in genetic sequencing, announced a private partnership aimed at deciphering the human genome faster and cheaper than the federal government, he touched off a furor.

The resulting race to map human genes grew ugly fast. At least one of Venter’s competitors expressed a desire to punch him in the mouth.

At an annual meeting on molecular biology and genomics that he describes as “a cross between a funeral and a lynch mob,”Venter had an idea. He asked Gerald Rubin, head of the fruit fly genome project at the University of California, Berkeley, to step out for a chat in the hallway. He asked Rubin’s funder to come along.

Venter told them that while others thought he should sequence another worm as a way to debug his computer algorithm, he’d rather decode the fly (Drosophila) instead. Would Rubin help him?

The fly guy said: “Great, anyone who wants to help finish Drosophila is my friend, as long as you are going to put all the data in GenBank.” Anticipating that answer,Venter said yes and promised to publish the genome as soon as it was sequenced and analyzed. They shook on it.

Venter rejoiced. “With a minimum of fuss and politics,” he says, “I had initiated one of the best—if not the best—collaborative projects of my scientific career.”

When he returned to the room, Venter waited for the presentation to end and then informed the group of his test project. He was met with a wave of hostility, other scientists crying foul, becoming “apoplectic” and “rushing around like headless chickens.”

James Watson, one of the discoverers of DNA, apparently likened Venter to Hitler. (“Craig wanted to own the human genome the way Hitler wanted to own the world.”)

Starting that day, each team chose sides and played hard. Although Venter’s private project was ahead at the finish line, he agreed to a joint publication in Science and the race wound up an official tie, mapping the human genome years ahead of schedule.

Lesson: Don’t be distracted by the Sturm und Drang of competition. Cut through the noise and seek out what you need to get the job done.

—Adapted from A Life Decoded: My Genome: My Life, J. Craig Venter, Viking.

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