Book Review: Coming to Life by Christiane Nusslein-Volhard

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It is truly a challenge to write both scientifically, informatively, and accessibly. However, Christiane Nusslein-Volhard is able to strike a remarkable balance in her new book on developmental biology, Coming to Life. She succinctly summarizes crucial discoveries and experiments in the field, spanning from Darwin and Mendel to very recent work in cloning and gene therapy. But, the book does not read like a laundry list of names, dates, and reagents. Rather, the book feels more like a journey through time and science, with Nusslein-Volhard as the guide, pointing out sights and sounds along the way.

The Author

Christiane Nusslein-Volhard was awarded a share of the 1995 Nobel Prize in Medicine for her research in Drosophila (fruit fly), which had a wider applicability to the understanding of human genetics. Currently, she is the director of Molecular Biology at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, where she has been for over twenty years. Her expertise in both science and writing is fully evident in Coming to Life; she is obviously very well qualified to summarize important discoveries given her own place in the timeline.

(More below the fold.........)

The Subject

In a mere 150 pages, the author covers topics ranging from evolution to stem cells. Although, in my opinion, this book's real subject is a kind of "Where did we come from?" for grown-ups. How do single cells, such as an egg or stem cell, become more complex forms and eventually lead to entire organisms? How do genes influence this process, and are genes similar throughout species? Why do we use model organisms and what can they tell us about ourselves? These are a few of the basic types of questions that Coming to Life attempts to tackle. There are 10 Chapters, which follow a time-line organization (the latest chapters refer to more recent discoveries). The later chapters are slightly more complex, but the preceding chapters (which summarize genes, mutations, etc) do an excellent job of laying the groundwork for higher analysis.

I felt that the greatest strength of the book was when the author was discussing her element: genes in Drosophila. She makes an excellent case as to why the fruit fly is used as a model organism, and why the study of "fly genes" has any applicability to humans. She also avoids the often-made mistake of hurling to many gene names at the reader; perhaps at the expense of thoroughness, she sticks to the explanation of a few crucial genes rather than naming and involving them all. I believe this goes a long way in keeping the "story" simple and interesting.

In the last chapter, she even (briefly) weighs-in on the moral status of the embryo, which I found fascinating given her expert background. I though, Who better to comment? She holds the belief that it is not just scientists, but rather society as a whole, who must formulate decisions regarding when an embryo deserves legal protection. She also raises the point that in addition to mere fertilization of an egg, mammals must also complete the act of implantation in the uterus for further development to occur. I had honestly never much considered this fact before, but it makes moral arguments related to RU-486 (which prevent implantation) all the more interesting. She also takes a firm stand against human cloning, and urges caution that the quest for the reduction of human suffering is not hindered by the fear of extremists. Although these more modern concerns initially seemed a little out of place, after considering it in the context of who I HOPED would read it (lay-people, perhaps even policy makers??), I thought it was important to include these topics which are often misunderstood.

The Audience

While career molecular biologists or developmental biologists may find the depth of analysis lacking, the book is a terrific jumping-off point for the student or layperson to understand many of the basic concepts that have shaped who we are genetically. That said, I would be surprised if anyone, no matter their expertise, did not appreciate the graceful explanations in this book. Although I am student of science myself, I can honestly say that I learned a lot reading this book. The chapters are bolstered by many very helpful diagrams explaining concepts brought up in the text. The figures appear hand-drawn, but not sloppy, and seem to reflect the personal investment that the author had in the book and in the material.

So, all said I highly recommend this book, especially for people who are curious about the genes behind development, traits, and diseases. It is informative and broad without being overwhelming. Buy it from Amazon here.


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I've had several interactions with her and I hate to say it, but this is the lasting impression. At the ... 1996? Cell meeting she gave the keynote, which was supposed to last 30 minutes (if I remember). Instead, she ended up speaking for like 45 minutes and then complained that it was unreasonable for them to think she could discuss her work in that amount of time.

Anyways, I know this is offtopic, but I can't hear her name and not think of this.

I definitely enjoyed the book as well. It's great to see good, solid, and accurate science written for the public. It's pretty accessible, although its slightly academic tone might limit its appeal slightly. The discussion on embryonic stem cell research was enlightening, and I thought it was unfortunate that she didn't go a little further in making the case for animal research as well (politically, it's kind of like the UK equivalent to embryonic stem cell research in the US.)

I enjoyed the book--which I read, via recommendation, alongside Endless Forms Most Beautiful--but found the prose a little off-putting. It didn't sound academic, Finally, after another sentence was, sans conscious intervention, delivered in the voice of my German-born, Yiddish-speaking grandmother, I flipped back to the frontpages, started reading all the fine print, and there, lo and behold, I found "Helga Schier, Ph.D., Translator from the original German."

I'm in literary studies, where we boldly announce the translator's name so that everyone can admire the skill with which he or she enlivened the source text; but there seemed something strange about there being no easy-to-find, visible clue that the book was translated. Not that this fact detracts from its quality, mind you; merely that I enjoyed the last few chapters more than the first, since I wasn't persistently uncomfortable with the prose. (I'll give translations far more prosodical leg-room.)