Since the human genome was first sequenced in 2001, genetics has been all the rage. Companies like 23andMe are selling you their interpretation of your genetic code. Epigenetics has gone from the somewhat controversial study of how experience can affect your makeup to a marketing word for new forms of yoga and dieting. Global meetings are taking place to discuss the ethics of genetically modifying unborn children. Getting your genome sequenced is now relatively cheap and easy. Author Carl Zimmer has his genome data on a 60g drive.
Zimmer launched his latest book, She Has Her Mother’s Laugh, at the World Science Festival earlier this summer. Here, he explores his own heredity and genealogy. (He has the gene associated with nose bleeds.) Looking at the transformation of eugenics from encouraging smart people to have lots of children to a fuel for racism in Nazi Germany, Zimmer suggests, “Maybe we need a new definition of heredity.”
Zimmer spoke of fascinating subjects, and if they don’t spark an interest in genetics for you, I imagine nothing will:
- Having a kid can change a mother’s composition. Some women get cells from their fetus because they circulate in the body, and for some of those women, those cells stay and set up shop. You might find a y-chromosome from your son in your brain years after you’ve given birth, for example.
- A woman giving blood in the 50s had two types of blood because she had a twin who swapped cells with her in the womb.
- Epigenetics science is not quite there yet, but even Darwin liked the idea of experience changing one’s particles. It is psychologically appealing that we can control our genes, that we can make them the best as possible by our experiences and then pass them along to our unborn children.
- Mitochondria have their own sets of genes, so mitochondria mutations are not predictable in heredity. In theory, using CRISPR, you should be able to make a little change to eye mitochondria and allow people blinded by Leber’s optic neuropathy to see again.
Now you want more, right? You’re in luck. Here are this spring’s most popular books on genetics, genomics, and DNA.
Heredity isn’t just about genes that pass from parent to child. Heredity continues within our own bodies, as a single cell gives rise to trillions of cells that make up our bodies. We say we inherit genes from our ancestors—using a word that once referred to kingdoms and estates—but we inherit other things that matter as much or more to our lives, from microbes to technologies we use to make life more comfortable. We need a new definition of what heredity is and, through Carl Zimmer’s lucid exposition and storytelling, this resounding tour de force delivers it. (May 2018)
How to Code a Human investigates all aspects of modern genetics, from the evolution of our species to inherited disease, from “junk” DNA to the molecular processes inside our cells. This fascinating guide examines what gene sequencing reveals about who we are, how we’re wired, and how we repair ourselves. Featuring stunning illustrations and infographics, this insightful guide to the code of life takes us on a beautiful visual journey—and is an essential read for anyone captivated by the scope of human discovery. (April 2018)
The Gene from Genetics to Postgenomics by Hans-Jorg Rheinberger and Staffan Muller-Wille
Though the gene has long been the central organizing theme of biology, both conceptually and as an object of study, Rheinberger and Müller-Wille conclude that we have never even had a universally accepted, stable definition of it. Rather, the concept has been in continual flux—a state that, they contend, is typical of historically important and productive scientific concepts. It is that very openness to change and manipulation, the authors argue, that made it so useful: its very mutability enabled it to be useful while the technologies and approaches used to study and theorize about it changed dramatically. (January 2018)
Troublesome Science: The Misuse of Genetics and Genomics in Understanding Race by Rob DeSalle and Ian Tattersall
In Troublesome Science, Rob DeSalle and Ian Tattersall provide a lucid and forceful critique of how scientific tools have been misused to uphold misguided racial categorizations. Troublesome Science demonstrates conclusively that modern genetic tools, when applied correctly to the study of human variety, fail to find genuine differences. While the diversity that exists within our species is a real phenomenon, it nevertheless defeats any systematic attempt to recognize discrete units within it. The stark lines that humans insist on drawing between their own groups and others are nothing but a mixture of imagination and ideology. (June 2018)
Genetics 101: From Chromosomes and the Double Helix to Cloning and DNA Tests, Everything You Need to Know About Genes by Beth Skwarecki
Part of Adams Media’s 101 series, Genetics 101 breaks down the science of how genes are inherited and passed from parents to offspring, what DNA is and how it works, how your DNA affects your health, and how you can use your personal genomics to find out more about who you are and where you come from. (July 2018)
Genomics: A Very Short Introduction by John Archibald
Although some may find it a bit of an academic choice, I am a big fan of the Very Short Introduction series of tiny little books from Oxford University Press. In this Very Short Introduction, John Archibald explores the science of genomics and its rapidly expanding toolbox. Sequencing a human genome now takes only a few days and costs as little as $1,000. The genomes of simple bacteria and viruses can be sequenced in a matter of hours on a device that fits in the palm of your hand. The resulting sequences can be used to better understand our biology in health and disease and to ‘personalize’ medicine. Archibald shows how the field of genomics is on the cusp of another quantum leap; the implications for science and society are profound. (May 2018)