Regular readers of this blog will be well aware that we are currently in the middle of a technology-driven revolution in genetics, which promises both advances in our understanding of human biology and profound social transformation. As we move into the genomic era, developing familiarity with the basic concepts of genetics – so-called genetic literacy – will be increasingly important.
The goal of Mark Henderson’s 50 Genetics Ideas You Really Need to Know is thus ambitious but timely: to distill the complexity of genetics into a series of digestible bite-sized chunks suitable for public consumption. Each of the Ideas in the book – which range from selfish genes to genetic genealogy to designer babies – is condensed into just four pages, along with a single statement containing the basic message of the section (e.g. for the selfish genes section: “Genes look selfish, but people needn’t be”), short vignettes highlighting particular sub-topics of interest, and relevant quotes drawn from a wide variety of sources.
As Science Editor for the Times Henderson has written extensively on genetics for a lay audience (see for instance his excellent recent piece on genetic privacy);
that experience shows here. Despite their brevity, his chapters cover
the crucial components of a particular topic in sufficient depth to
illuminate without overwhelming with detail.
coverage of controversial topics is admirably well-balanced where
balance is appropriate (a particularly good example being the section
on genes and insurance, in which he goes well beyond the standard
“genetic discrimination is bad” boilerplate), but he doesn’t hold back
from dismissing unscientific views: creationists are singled out for
criticism in chapter 1, while the alarmist claims of anti-GM activists
are dealt with suitably in the section on GM crops.
tight format there are inevitable sins of omission – the polymerase
chain reaction, the workhorse of modern molecular biology, is squeezed
briefly into chapter 31 (genetic fingerprinting) rather than taking its
rightful place in the introductory chapters; and there is no mention of
second-generation DNA sequencing in the later chapters covering “the
new genetics” – but overall Henderson does an impressive job of
spanning the field. Beginning with the history of genetics and
finishing with the most recent advances (such as the new-found
importance of copy number variation and RNA-based gene regulation), the
book takes numerous detours through the more interesting scientific,
ethical, philosophical and technological issues around the study of DNA.
book is not designed to serve as a comprehensive reference text, but
rather to engage and inform a broad audience – and it serves this role
admirably. Those just starting out on the road to genetic literacy will
find it easy to dip in and out of the chapters, unearthing nuggets of
dinner party conversation gold; for those interested in exploring
further the book provides a solid foundation for building a deeper
understanding of the field.
The appeal of the book also
extends beyond genetics rookies: I certainly stumbled across several
intriguing factoids from areas of genetics outside my specialty, and
Henderson’s ability to encapsulate a complex concept or argument in a
single paragraph will provide useful fodder for anyone involved in
communicating genetics to a wider audience.
50 Genetics Ideas You Really Need to Know is an engaging read that fills an important niche; I give it 3.5 nucleotides out of 4.