Ingrid Wickelgren, a correspondent for Science, spent three years chatting with the major players in genomics for her recently published general-audience book, The Gene Masters: How a new breed of scientific entrepreneurs raced for the biggest prize in biology. GT’s Aaron Sender phoned her at home in New Jersey.
How did you end up writing this book?
I had wanted to do a grand history of genetics taking people all the way back to Mendel. I’ve always been interested in the people behind the discoveries in genetics. So what I wanted to do was to profile some of the major figures, Mendel and Watson, all the way up to the invention of the gene chip technology.
As I started doing the interviews I began realizing that the most compelling stories involved the excitement, conflict, and personality that revolved around the conflict between the private sector efforts and the publicly funded genome project.
What struck you the most as you were writing the book?
One of the things that really hit me was the extent to which the government program was so conservative and the people making the decisions seemed to be so insular.
Is there anything you discovered that even a genomics insider might not know?
There was a lot of conflict among the public labs at the end. For example, Eric Lander claims to have sequenced more than any other lab, and that’s true on paper. And he did an absolutely phenomenal scale-up, there’s no denying that.
But as a matter of fact, some of the other labs, Waterston’s and Gibbs’, were pretty annoyed. They were supposed to have these chromosomes divided up, and it was supposed to be very orderly. And Lander just decided the genome had to get done and started sequencing randomly from different chromosomes.
In the other labs’ point of view it was to some extent like, ‘Well, yeah, he did the most sequence, but how much of that overlapped ours? How much of that was actually new sequence?’ Their claim is that the overlap wasn’t totally insignificant and I think they feel a little like he was trying to get the glory.