Book review: Upcoming book offers meticulous, “intimate” look at genetics
May 14, 2016
“The Gene: An Intimate History,” by Siddhartha Mukherjee
In 2010, Siddhartha Mukherjee completed the final draft of "The Emperor of All Maladies," the brilliant, exhaustive, award-winning "biography" of cancer, and thought, as he writes in his acknowledgements in "The Gene: An Intimate History," "I (will) never lift a pen to write another book."
Fortunately for us, he was wrong. A search for his family's identity and an explanation for the mental illness that struck his father's brothers led him to write "The Gene," and we are the better for it.
"The Gene" tells the history of the concept of a "gene," a factor responsible for variants in generational expression (think long or twisted pea pods or blue or brown eyes) all the way to the molecular structure we call genes — discrete segments of DNA, which, when transcribed in our cells, create proteins responsible for specific functions. Mukherjee traces the concept back to Aristotelian ideas of "likeness," even as he begins his account with Mendel and Darwin.
This is an intimate history. He doesn't just recount the discoveries — the science of the gene; he tells us about the persons who made these discoveries. We learn that Mendel couldn't pass the test to become a teacher, meaning he had the time and opportunity to meticulously breed his peas. We learn that Thomas Morgan, a Nobel prize-winning scientist who first recognized "gene linkage," (certain genes seem to be "linked" to one another and inherited together) thought in 1934 that genetics had made only an "intellectual" contribution to medicine.
This is a meticulous history. For those interested in the molecular biology — the chemistry of genes — Mukherjee carefully proceeds from Crick and Watson's remarkably clever discovery of the DNA double helix through the recognition of the code embedded in DNA, to the transcription of that code to RNA and proteins, to the sequence of the entire 3 billion nucleic acids and 21,000 genes of human DNA, to Jennifer Doudna's discovery of CRISPR, which has made gene "editing" — precise, specific changes to DNA — not only possible, but also efficient, fast and inexpensive enough to have spawned nearly 10 start-up companies in only two years.
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This is a provocative history. Mukherjee does not shy away from the questions about what we might do, can do and should do now that we can change human DNA. On the one hand, we have opened a very specific set of doors to treating disease. On the other is another set of doors that promise to eliminate not only what we think of as disease, but also to challenge what we accept as "normal," doors that could determine who we are — tall or short, happy or sad, straight or gay.
Most of all, this is a readable history. One need not be a molecular biologist to follow Mukherjee's account; in fact, molecular biologists would be disappointed in the lack of scientific detail were it not for the nearly hundred pages of endnotes and references.
"The Gene" is a story that, once read, makes us far better educated to think about the profound questions that will confront us in the coming decades.
Ron Krall is co-owner of Off the Beaten Path. "The Gene: An Intimate History" will be published May 17.