Non-Fiction Reviews

The new age of genomics

(2015) Dawn Field & Neil Davies, Oxford University Press, 16.99 US$29.95, hrdbk, xii + 196pp, ISBN 978-0-199-68775-6


If the 20th century was scientifically characterised by physics (with the Copenhagen Interpretation at its beginning and at its end the decision to construct the Large Hadron Collider at CERN which led to the detection of the Higgs Boson in the early 21st century) then surely the 21st century will be characterised by biology with the draft sequencing of the human genome at its start back in 2001. Since then much has been achieved including assembling a living bacterium from raw base pairs to creating an artificial genome from DNA base-pairs not found in nature. Even early on in the century we have developed the techniques that in theory will wipe out all inherited mitochondrial disease.

Given this, it would be more than a little prudent for those considering themselves to be aware of pertinent science in our increasingly technological and knowledge-based economy that will shape our lives as this century progresses. Here the new biology has its social contentions and ethical dimensions that will inevitably be debated. Given this, lay individuals have a choices: they can listen to the arguments for as well as those against, the new biological sciences, or they can let someone else strike a balanced debate for them and hope that they have done a fair and impartial job. What Dawn Field and Neil Davis have done for us in Biocode is to provide a primer as to the history of the way the new science of genomics has developed and inform us of the likely benefits. And to this end they have done a very commendable job.

The ground they cover in under a couple of hundred pages is considerable, but they do so seemingly effortlessly and though the subject matter is technical (with key technical terms included that provide search strings for the reader's further study) the nitty-gritty is avoided with just the basics and the societal/human implications covered. And so in the opening pages we learn about DNA, its use in profiling and in turn implications from identifying parents, pets gene lines, food standards (remember Europe's recent supermarket horsemeat scandal?) Along the way the authors provide examples to illustrate uses and societal impacts, from a pet's cat hairs that proved its owner was a murderer (the hairs were found on a curtain used to wrap the victim) to using genetics to determine crops' resistance to pests. It is these latter, non-human genome, examples that are central to the author's overall message.

Though my own work relates to human ecology and biosphere science, I am sufficiently up-to-date with the basics of the ground the authors cover. Nonetheless there enough new to me for the book to be thoroughly engaging. For example, as a simple Earth system scientist, I was unaware that we had multiple genomes, that one criminal's DNA profile had been masked due to a medical bone marrow transplant had its genetic material migrate to his cheek cells, and that a study of 59 women had found 'Y' chromosomes in 63% of their neurons: the 'y' chromosome had come from when they gestated their male offspring, hence their partners I simply had to check the primary research paper on that one. what I am saying is that biologists working in areas outside of genomics are likely to find things in Biocode of interest, and so Biocode is a read for non-genomic biologists as it is for non-biologists.

Turning to some of the controversial areas the book touches on, perhaps the biggest ethical question in an age where the term 'eugenics' has unfortunately, but understandably, become a dirty word, is whether or not we own our children good genes if we can provide them? Might, one day, a new law come into being whereby denying one's offspring good genes was considered a form of abuse? (cf. Stock's Redesigning Humans: Choosing Our Children's Genes)  What if pre-selecting embryos from a number provided by the parents for the best markers becomes the norm? Though these are currently science fictional questions they may very easily become ones of real-life practical concern. Which brings us to the question of whether humanity might be speciating into a new species. (Something SF has considered a number of times: for example, Kress' Beggars in Spain?) And then there's the question of de-extinction? (Jurassic Park?)

But it is the sequencing of not just the human genome that the authors cite as being critical to a broader overall venture. Such has our ability to read genomes grown, and the cost decreased, that we can even sequence the genomes of species that are no longer with us. Given this and our ability to create 'artificial' life, we now face the prospect of being able to resurrect species that have become extinct. This raises the prospect of de-extinction which itself is most timely given that the human population explosion means that natural lands are being replaced by cities and swathes of low-biodiversity agriculture. And so the race is on to encode all species; all of life on Earth.

With 260 end notes and a dozen or so pages of end-book academic references, the reader is set up for further exploration of their own avenues of interest.

There were some things missing. The authors do cover PCR a method of making many multiple copies of DNA from a single sample) but do not cover CRISPR-Cas9, the basis of a new method of DNA editing that from my ignorant, non-genomic scientist perspective seems to be taking molecular biology by storm. But then a small, legible briefing book cannot cover everything and it would be churlish of any reviewer to mention any omissions given the excellent choices the authors seem to have made in deciding what to keep in and what to leave out.

With Biocode Dawn Field and Neil Davies have given is a very readable basic primer that really does deliver understanding of a vitally important, and tremendous in scope, task genome bioscientists are undertaking and whose consequences will be far reaching. I can see this being the sort of book university lecturers puts on a summer holiday reading list for prospective first-year life-science undergraduates. I can also see the (cheaper) paperback being of great interest to a more general, casual readership. So, if you do get to read Biocode then as it is one of those titles that could so easily slip through the net do blog and social media your own review. Indeed, hopefully this book does sufficiently well that the publishers will entice the authors in a few years time to provide a slightly expanded, second edition.

Jonathan Cowie

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