Building A Library ; Genetic Engineering

By McAuley, Paul | The Independent on Sunday (London, England), February 8, 2004 | Go to article overview
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Building A Library ; Genetic Engineering


McAuley, Paul, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)


We stand at the threshold of a profound change in the course of human evolution. Just 50 years after Crick and Watson published the brief paper in which they described the structure of DNA and suggested, in what has been called one of the great understatements of all time, that it "has novel features which are of considerable biological interest", scientists have mapped the entire human genome and developed powerful techniques that, if we choose, would allow us to rewrite our genetic inheritance and re-engineer our biology. Modern genetics poses a host of important practical and ethical questions: fortunately, there are plenty of books to help us understand them. James Watson's DNA: The Secret of Life, written with Andrew Berry, gives a clear, well-illustrated account of how DNA's double helix, using just four different chemical bases, passes genetic information from one generation to the next, and coordinates cell development and metabolism. It's also a pithy overview of the power and scope of modern genetics, culminating in the story of the Human Genome Project, which, combining the information-crunching capability of supercomputers and DNA sequencing on an industrial scale, was the most ambitious biological research programme ever undertaken. Robert Cook-Deegan's The Gene Wars gives a Beltway insider's account of the politics and intrigue that surrounded the project's inception, while Kevin Davies' The Sequence describes how it turned into a race after a brilliant and outspoken scientist, Craig Venter, announced that his company was going to decode the human genome first. The British side of the US/UK collaboration, informed by a critique of those who wish to profit from our genes, is given in The Common Thread, by Sir John Sulston and Georgina Ferry. The human genome contains more than three billion bases. Written out in DNA's four-letter alphabet, it would occupy over 25 metres of bookshelf; far easier to access it via the internet. The site maintained by Jim Kent (who oversaw the assembly of the first rough draft of the human genome) and others at www.

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