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5.0 out of 5 stars A romp through the genome, 6 Jun. 2010
This review is from: Genome: The Autobiography Of Species In 23 Chapters: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters (Paperback)
The author states that he came up with the format for this book after reading Primo Levi's work. I'm glad he did, as the final work is an excellent means of introducing the human genome. The book was written just over 10 years ago in 1999, just before the completion of the Human Genome Project (the sequencing of the entire human genome). It is interesting to note that the author suggests that there are between 60-80,000 genes in the human genome. This was what was thought at the time. It is now known that there are around 30,000 genes, a number only about 10 times that of the average bacterium, an observation that raises interesting questions in itself. Ridley helpfully warns us that the arrangement of genes on the chromosomes is essentially arbitrary: members of gene families can occur on different chromosomes, for example the light-sensing retinol proteins.

By using a chromosome-by-chromosome approach, we get a good impression of the range of genes (strictly gene products, i.e. proteins) that are encoded by the genome. From ribosomal RNA genes on chromosome 1 to the tumour suppressor gene P53 on chromosome 17. We learning interesting things on the way, including the parental imprinting of certain genes (for example embryos formed from eggs where both sets of chromosomes come from the mother fail to form a placenta). However, there are recurrent themes throughout the book. In particular the notion of free will versus genetic determinism. Mentioned, for example is the hypothesis that humans are born with an innate or instinctive ability to form and understand grammatical structures. The existence of inherited conditions such as Specific Language Impairment would seem to lend credence to this view. However, there is much debate in this area. It would seem that the realisation of certain traits such as shyness are stongly influenced by inheritance could help in therapy, by the recognition that particular states are innate, one can then deal more effectively with them during therapy. Conversely, we learn how the external world can influence gene expression, such as in the stress-response system, where external stressors are signalled to the hypothalamus which in turn signals the adrenal glands to release steroid hormones. These then act to alter gene expression in other cells. This has significance not just for health but for social position, particularly in social animals such as monkeys.

The function of genes in disease (the author repeatly and rightly states that genes are not there to cause disease) is well discussed. In particular Huntingdon's disease, where severity depends on the number of CAG repeats (which code for glutamine). Presumably this effects protein folding. Interestingly, this repeat is present in other neurological diseases.

We learn abouth the effect of selection pressure on gene expression in humans, in particular the ABO blood group system. This is a good reminder, if one is needed, of the central place of evolution in understanding everthing in biology. I believe that even molecular biologists should study evolution!

Overall, this is a well-written book that is very accessible to the non-scientist. It fulfills a number of my criteria for being a goog book: interesting; holds the reader's interest; covers lots of ground and makes the reader think. One thing though, the material it covers is subject to extensive research, and knowledge is growing rapidly so it would certainly benefit from regular updates. I'm sure Matt Ridley is up to the challenge!
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