Kevin Davies. Free Press, $25 (288p) ISBN 0-7432-0479-4

The Human Genome Project, the effort to determine the full genetic composition of human beings, has consumed billions of dollars, involved thousands of scientists, captured the imaginations of millions of people and offered the promise of untold numbers of medical breakthroughs. Davies, founding editor of the journal Nature Genetics and author of Breakthrough: The Race to find the Breast Cancer Gene, does an impressive job of contextualizing the science within a political, economic and social framework, creating a lively tale as accessible to nonspecialists as it is to scientists. A quest for profits as well as accolades is shown to be an important force in shaping "what is, at the very least, an extraordinary technological achievement, and is at best perhaps the defining moment in the evolution of mankind." Most of the leading scientists involved, individuals such as James Watson, Nobel laureate and original director of the Human Genome Project; Francis Collins, Watson's successor; and J. Craig Venter, the entrepreneurial scientist who decided to compete with the publicly funded Human Genome Project using private money and untested computational methods, spoke openly with Davies about their hopes and desires. Davies does a fine job describing the basic molecular biology and genetics underlying the Project as well as many of the ways our newfound knowledge may be put to use, though he largely ignores the ethical considerations swirling around a lot of these options. (Jan.)

Forecast:The Free Press hopes publication will coincide with the public joint release of the human genome sequence by the Human Genome Project and Craig Venter's Celera Genomics. Spurred by that burst of publicity, the same readers who put Matt Ridley's Genome on the New York Times paperback bestseller list may provide brisk sales of this title as well.