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Mapping the gene story — from Pythagoras to genome editing

Ajith Pillai | Updated on January 17, 2018

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Siddhartha Mukherjee’s tome is a gripping read that entertains and informs

On reading Siddhartha Mukherjee’s 592-page tome, The Gene: An Intimate Story (Publishers, Penguin/Allen Lane), one may be tempted to draw comparisons to Bertrand Russell’s 1925 classic, ABC of Relativity, in which one of the greatest philosophers of the previous century elucidated Albert Einstein’s path-breaking concepts for the common reader.

Mukherjee’s task is not as challenging as Russell’s given that genetic science is not as alien to us as Einstein’s Theory of Relativity was in the 1920s. Today, we have all been sufficiently exposed to the marvels of genetics and its possible use and misuse. But how many of us know enough about the “birth, growth, and future of one of the most powerful and dangerous ideas in the history of science: the gene?”

To the author’s immense credit, he approaches the subject in an engaging manner which makes this voluminous book a veritable page turner. In fact, Pulitzer Prize winning author Anthony Doerr describes The Gene as “perhaps the greatest detective story ever told…”

The book is indeed a thriller, although it is one which the reader may like to go back to for comprehending the nuances.

The book takes us on a rollercoaster ride through history. The rewind goes as far back as 530 BC, when Greek mathematician Pythagoras propounded his take on inheritance — that hereditary traits were contained in the male semen which coursed through the body, collecting information about various characteristics like height, body structure and colour, and transmitted this to the embryo in the womb. This flawed thesis of the mother’s body merely providing nutrition to transform the data into a child was later refuted by Aristotle, who observed that children are also born with attributes inherited from their mothers.

Things stood still there relatively for the next 2,000 years. Then, in 1865, Augustinian monk Gregor Mendel identified units of heredity while breeding different strains of the pea plant at an abbey in Brno, Austria. From then on the plot races ahead as the book details the quest for the gene, arguably one of nature’s great mysteries. The journey that Mukherjee takes us on traverses through the 1930s, when the Nazi “biological state” launched its experiments, to the quirky Watson, Crick and Wilkinson era of the 1950s, when the double helix structure of the DNA was discovered. The book halts in the present, when new methods to edit and change human genomes are being invented.

It’s a brave new — and sometimes frightening — world that lies ahead, says the author. Like the atom, the gene surfaced as an abstract idea but has grown to invade our lives. One criticism of the book is that it does not delve deep enough into the darker side of what is a cutting edge science. Indeed, as a book, The Gene is surely the ABC of genetics but stops short of exposing us to the XYZ of that science.

(The writer is a senior Delhi-based journalist and author of “Off the Record: Untold Stories from a Reporter's Diary”)

Published on July 22, 2016

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