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Saturday, July 9th, 2011

Time Event
11:35p
What we're made of ...
I've been on a bit of a run with “wins” via LibraryThing.Com's “Early Reviewer” program, having being awarded a book a month over the past several months by the LTER's “Almighty Algorithm”. This is the latest (well, strictly speaking, not, as I'm awaiting the arrival of June's win, this one's from the May batch) from them. I was somewhat surprised that they matched this up with my library, as although I've read a lot of science books in the past, I've not done many recently, and very little of that was in the biological sciences.

I really didn't have any solid preconceptions of what John Quackenbush's The Human Genome: Book of Essential Knowledge would be like, although the description was a good bit more in-depth than is usual for the blurbs on the monthly LTER offering page. While I can't really speak to how “essential” the material in this “book of essential knowledge” is, the author certainly makes an effort to cover a wide range of subjects that are concerned with the Human Genome Project, and in doing so sacrifices depth for breadth in this compact 176-page volume.

The book begins with politics, relating the 2000 press conference jointly held by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, announcing the “completion” of the genetic map, although large portions of the genome had not been addressed at that point, and work is still continuing. The Human Genome Project was a government project, started in 1990, which later found itself in competition with the private company Celera. Fortunately, to a certain extent, these two entities worked cooperatively, although with different source DNA.

Quackenbush then sets the stage for the project by going back to the earliest days of genetic research, with Mendel, Darwin, the development of Cell Theory, and progressive improvements on how we were able to explore these zones, leading up to the discovery of DNA and the early efforts of gene sequencing. He then tracks the progression of creatures used to study genes, from bacteria (with a couple of million “base pairs”), to yeast (13 million base pairs), to roundworms (100 million base pairs), fruit flies (the familiar Drosophila of highschool biology classes, at 130 million base pairs), and eventually to Human genome, with 3 billion base pairs. The number of “base pairs” of nucleotides does not, however, dictate the number of genes, as human DNA has about 25,000 genes, not vastly more than the roundworm's 20,000. In fact, many plants have many more genes, with far fewer base pairs, the poplar tree, for example, has only 550,000 base pairs (less than 2% of humans') but nearly twice the genes, at 45,000 (the reason for this is supposed to be the “rootedness” of plants, which can't move away from unfavorable environmental factors, so need to “carry” their options with them).

The next factor looks at how genes are expressed (many other factors strongly effect how a particular gene will perform), how mutation figures in, and how genetics distribute across populations. Much of the genetic heritage is common to all life on the planet, going up to as much as a 98% commonality with the chimpanzees. Within humanity, there is only about 1/10th of 1% variation between any two people, which, conveniently, means that the two genome maps being worked on will provide a very good approximation of the genes across the entire population.

From here the book turns to disease, first with a full chapter looking at various types of cancer, and how genes may or may not have influence in its development. This is followed by another chapter that looks at many diseases, a number of which have been determined to arise from specific genetic factors. Here the book shifts gears again and takes a look at what the genome can tell us about evolution, both in general (arising from the simplest forms and on towards more complex creatures), and in tracing humanity's origins and complicated movements from its African roots in spreading across the planet. Finally, “the future” is looked at, with projections on what continuing knowledge of the genome might bring, from the dystopian scenarios familiar from science fiction, into “personal medicine” based on one's individual genetic make-up.

Now, The Human Genome is pitched as aimed at the “general reader”, but I have to note that this came close to “losing” me at a few points. The author is trying to get so much information, in so many different areas, into the book, that he, at times, apparently leaves out explanatory material that would make things clearer. Of course, the good side of that is that he's having to move on to the next subject so quickly that there's not much opportunity to get overly “bogged down”. I did want to make a note of this, however, as I am a “science reader”, and would expect to not have these difficulties!

Both B&N and Amazon have this at about a third off of (the very reasonable) cover price, but this should (being out for just a few months) be at the brick-and-mortar places too. It's one of those books that I'm glad to have read, although it didn't necessarily engage me cover-to-cover. If you're interested in genetic research, however, you should definitely pick up a copy!


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