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Won for All: How the Drosophila Genome Was Sequenced

Subject Area(s):  GenomicsDrosophila melanogasterGeneral Interest TitlesHistory of Science

By Michael Ashburner

© 2006 • 107 pp., illus.
Hardcover •
ISBN  978-087969802-7

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A recorded interview with Michael Ashburner by Adrienne Burke, Editor of Science & the City, can be heard here:

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This is the story of the sequencing of the fly genome as told by one of the participants, Michael Ashburner. Written in a diary–like form, half the story is told in numerous footnotes. Ashburner has written a delightful, candid, irreverent, on–the–scene tale filled with eccentric personalities all focused on a single goal.

The book also contains an Epilogue that puts Drosophila as a model system in historical context, and an Afterword that discusses the impact the genome sequence has had on the study of Drosophila. Also included are portraits by Lewis Miller of some of the principal characters.

About the author: Michael Ashburner is Professor of Biology in the Department of Genetics at the University of Cambridge. By training and inclination, he is a Drosophila geneticist, although for more than a decade, he has not been where he belongs—the lab bench—but in front of computer screens. He spent six years at the European Bioinformatics Institute, first as the Institute's Research Programme Coordinator, and then as its Joint–Head. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society and an Honorary Foreign Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.


The Portraits
Chapter 1: Opening Gambits
Chapter 2: The Middle Game
Photo Gallery
Chapter 3: Puffing and Panting: The Jamboree
Chapter 4: The End Game
Epilogue, R. Scott Hawley
Afterword, Ethan Bier


review:  “The book rattles along with immediate, chaotic, rambunctious prose, digressing several times on every page into chatty and irreverent footnotes to explain who people are, how and why to find a certain restaurant, or where an aphorism comes from (‘Box and Cox’ is from an Arthur Sullivan operetta, apparently). Ashburner says that his education in the works of Geoffrey Chaucer taught him the value of footnotes....

The history of genome sequencing drives home the message that science is usually the daughter, not the mother, of technology. Sequencing the human, fruitfly and all other genomes was made possible by new machinery. The resulting information was a glorious and far–reaching addition to human knowledge, but only a distant harbinger of new commercial applications. But at least it has generated some enjoyable literature, of which this is a good example.”

review:  “In this small and charming book, Won for All, Michael Ashburner gives us a glittering account of the sequencing of the Drosophila genome by a public–private partnership between government–funded laboratories and Celera Genomics. He portrays both the working life and the good life of science, with neat character sketches set off by Lewis Miller's excellent portraits. Michael's flair for detail and inveterate name–dropping, albeit of restaurants rather than people, lends itself nicely to re–creating the time and place of key events in this collaboration. The original fast–paced manuscript, which I liked so well when I first saw a draft in 2001, has been updated and provided with extensive footnotes that inform without interrupting the narrative. Technical background is given in two excellent postscripts: a fly primer form Scott Hawley, and an overview of fly functional genomics form Ethan Bier.”
      —PLoS Biology

review:  “...some history, some science, and a good deal of fun wrapped up in a continuous cloud of smoke. If you want a quick read that adds some color to other accounts of the efforts to sequence the fly and human genomes, then it is worth checking out Won for All.
      —J. Craig Venter, Science

review:  “In the small world of Drosophila, few if any figures are as highly revered as Michael Ashburner. In his latest book, the author departs from his encyclopedic volumes on the fly to narrate a short, but fascinating, tale about the people behind the sequencing of the fruit fly genome...

Written in the style of James Watson's Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA (1968. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson), this small book provides a delightfully fun and surprisingly honest account of the interactions among the big players of the sequencing effort. The frantic pace, international flavor, and charisma of Ashburner and his colleagues give this firsthand account the feeling of a whirlwind rock–and–roll tour. The author introduces the rock stars of the genome project with intimate detail, describing who rides a red Honda Nighthawk 750, who has purple hair, and which restaurants in London or New York you are most likely to bump into the stars. With quick–witted detail (unconventionally captured primarily in exhaustive and entertaining footnotes, he introduces over 50 geneticists. Informaticians entrepreneurs, and bartenders at the epicenter of the project. If the book has a downside, it is that you will have to take notes if you want to remember who's who in Won for All...

Geneticists, fly pushers of all kinds, and anyone interested in the political and social maneuvering that takes place in modern science should enjoy Ashburner's account of how the Drosophila genome was won."
      —The Quarterly Review of Biology

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