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Of Genes and Genomes

Where is the science of life taking us?

Jun 13, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 37 • By CHRISTINE ROSEN
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An Intelligent Person's Guide to Genetics

by Adrian Woolfson

Overlook, 224 pp., $21.95

ONE OF THE CONCEITS OF our times is that we live in such a complicated world that we require expert guidance to complete even the simplest of tasks. This sensibility is perhaps best exemplified by the small industry of guidebooks and how-to manuals that ironically flatter our incompetence by offering us the Complete Idiot's Guide to This, or the Dummies' Guide to That. The British publisher Overlook has launched a slightly different kind of series, called the "Intelligent Person's Guides," and the most recent addition to the series is An Intelligent Person's Guide to Genetics by Adrian Woolfson, who teaches medicine at Clare College, Cambridge, and is a contributor to the London Review of Books.

Dummies and Idiots are not the intended audience for Woolfson's elegant summary, with its impressive bibliography and often sophisticated discussions of genetic science. Woolfson's book tackles the history and current state of genetic science, in the process offering definitions and explanations of the basic features of the science, descriptions of important discoveries, and discussion of the attendant forces that influence and interact with DNA. He describes succinctly the much-publicized race between the privately funded scientist J. Craig Venter and researchers at the National Institutes of Health to sequence the human genome, avoiding both the breathlessness and hyperbole that so often infect descriptions of the project.

Woolfson's achievement is his ability to explain complicated scientific processes in lucid prose, marshaling metaphors that clarify rather than obscure the material. Of the nucleosome, for example, the group of proteins that packages DNA, Woolfson writes, "It functions much like the chaperones who used to accompany Victorian ladies on their excursions, determining whether the DNA is allowed to have access to visiting proteins or not." To read someone of clinical experience and scientific expertise who is also such a deft writer is a rare treat.

Despite his enthusiasm for Victorian cultural examples such as P.T. Barnum's Tom Thumb and the illusionist John Henry Pepper, Woolfson unfortunately offers little grounding in the culture of geneticists, past and present. Thomas Hunt Morgan, the American scientist who won the Nobel Prize in 1933 for his experiments on the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster, was one of the few geneticists to distance himself from eugenics, the movement that served as a precursor to genetics in the early 20th century. Many other geneticists, such as H.S. Jennings, were members of eugenics organizations until the 1920s. In other words, geneticists pursued their science not merely for the sake of science; they pursued it because it was a means to an end--improving the human race--even when that end required coercive means such as compulsory sterilization. It is difficult to consider thorough a guide to genetics that includes nary a mention of genetics's wicked stepsister, eugenics.

The best sections of Woolfson's narrative are his descriptions of important moments of scientific discovery in the field of genetics, which often include quirky details, like the story of scientists in the 1950s who, in the course of studying DNA in E. coli bacteria, "whirred in a kitchen blender" the cultures they'd created. Information about contemporary research initiatives, such as the Model Cell Consortium, which has embarked on a project far more ambitious than the Human Genome Project but has received much less attention, are also given their due. The Consortium is an effort to "model the logic and behavior of 'intelligent' cellular systems" using the E. coli bacteria.

From this effort to describe and replicate the structure of simple bacteria, Woolfson writes, will flow attempts to mimic more complex human cells, and to model their development--paving the way for what he calls a new, "bottom-up" approach to genetics, or, as one of his chapters is titled, "Making Creatures from Scratch." Woolfson discusses dispassionately the creation of animal chimeras (two dissimilar animals bred to create a new creature) and the revival of lost species like the dodo. He suggests that, eventually, "it might be possible to re-create the elusive ancestor of all human life on Earth, a hypothetical organism known as LUCA, or the 'least universal common ancestor'" since "the remnants of LUCA should be scattered across the genomes of all living things." We could, he claims, bring LUCA "back to life."