Book Review: Ten Years of Drama with the Gene Team ; the Sequence: Inside the Race for the Human Genome by Kevin Davies (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, Pounds 20)
Vines, Gail, The Independent (London, England)
SCIENCE JOURNALISTS work either for newspapers or for prestigious "primary journals" such as Nature. A simple behaviour test makes it easy to distinguish the two varieties. First, herd your journalists into a large hall. Next, introduce a sprinkling of senior scientists. Now, sit back and watch as the famous boffins run away from the newspaper hacks and towards the journal hirelings. Editors at Nature enjoy celebrity status, not least because it is they who decide which scientists' research reports are accepted for publication.
Kevin Davies makes it abundantly clear that he places himself in the ranks of the celebrity journalists. The introduction to The Sequence finds our author hosting a conference in Washington attended by a galaxy of scientific stars. Davies joined Nature in 1990 and two years later became the founding editor of one of Macmillan's new spin-off journals, Nature Genetics. "I had the great pleasure of working closely with the major figures in the story," he writes. "Since the project's launch in 1990, I have enjoyed the friendship and support of countless scientists around the world..."
The result is very much an insider's view of the "race" to determine the sequence of the four chemical building blocks that make up human DNA. The sequence of this genetic "alphabet" is significant because it reveals the messages encoded in our genes - the instructions cells use to make all the proteins in our bodies. Davies' goal "has been to capture the excitement, intrigue, mystery and majesty of the quest for biology's holy grail".
All the same, he does acknowledge that knowing the DNA sequence is only the first step. Scientists still have no idea what most human proteins even look like, let alone what each does within the millions of human cells. Davies approvingly quotes the American geneticist Eric Lander, who quipped that the genome sequence "is just half-time for genetics... the really interesting second half of the game is about to begin". Even calling our present state of knowledge "half-time" may, I suspect, turn out to be a gross exaggeration. …