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Science at the very edge
on 30 December 2011
Before I read this book my understanding of genetics was quite naive, I thought DNA made proteins, and if there are mutations in the DNA code then that leads to trouble, such as cancer. But only 2% of the human genome makes protein - what is the other 98% for?
Also consider this: A caterpillar that becomes a butterfly has exactly the same DNA - so why do they look so different?
The answer is 'epigenetics'. Whenever two genetically identical individuals are non-identical in some way we can measure, this is called epigenetics. This also includes an individual at different point in their life. For example why does horrendous abuse as a child often lead to problems later in life - is it psychological or is it embedded in the very genes of the person?
In the following sentence, before I read this book, I mostly understood the word 'within'.
"Histone Acetylation and DNA methylation within a CpG motif in the promoter region mediates gene expression ...."
By half way through this book I understood what this meant.
The author never hides the gritty details from the reader unlike many patronising popular science books that shy away from the scientific detail in case the reader finds it too difficult. She takes you step by step through the main details of epigenetics and the technical language used. It is not difficult, but you do have to take it slowly to digest the information.
To make the subject a bit lighter, the book is dotted with dry humour and pithy literary quotes.
Epigenetics is such a new field that many of the key players are still alive and working away in their laboratories and earning Nobel prizes along the way. She introduces you to some of the leading scientists and the contributions they are making. For example Professor Sir John Gurdon worked for ten years to explain why most cells remain forever of the same type through permanent gene inactivation, it explains why liver cells never become brain cells. Professor Yamanaka is one of the youngest luminaries in the stem cell and pluripotency field. He and his team has managed to convert adult cells back into pluripotent stem cells, thus offsetting the sensitive issue of using embryonic stem cells.
The latter half of the book covers the application of epigenetics. It starts with cancer and all its complexities and why we are unlikely to hear "Boffin finds cure for cancer" as there are many, many routes to cancer.
Then she moves on to mental illness such as schizophrenia and the role this new science may play along with the possible link between memory and genetics.
In one chapter the issue of ageing is discussed and its genetic underpinnings and are we likely to find drugs to help us live longer?
Finally, the topic of plant genetics is covered and she explains how a bee, a human and a tulip share very similar molecular mechanisms but they use them in a different way.
Throughout the book there are references to source material and these are found in the back of the book if you want to learn more (which I do).
Epigenetics is only just getting started and the author refers to conferences that occurred even as late as 2011. This is leading edge science.
It is a fascinating book. Yes, it is a technically demanding book. But if you are keen to get a deeper understanding of the future of genetics then I highly recommend it.