Genomes and What to Make of Them

Genomes and What to Make of Them

Genomes and What to Make of Them

Genomes and What to Make of Them

Synopsis

The announcement in 2003 that the Human Genome Project had completed its map of the entire human genome was heralded as a stunning scientific breakthrough: our first full picture of the basic building blocks of human life. Since then, boasts about the benefits- and warnings of the dangers- of genomics have remained front-page news, with everyone agreeing that genomics has the potential to radically alter life as we know it.
For the nonscientist, the claims and counterclaims are dizzying- what does it really mean to understand the genome? Barry Barnes and John Dupré offer an answer to that question and much more in Genomes and What to Make of Them, a clear and lively account of the genomic revolution and its promise. The book opens with a brief history of the science of genetics and genomics, from Mendel to Watson and Crick and all the way up to Craig Venter; from there the authors delve into the use of genomics in determining evolutionary paths- and what it can tell us, for example, about how far we really have come from our ape ancestors. Barnes and Dupré then consider both the power and risks of genetics, from the economic potential of plant genomes to overblown claims that certain human genes can be directly tied to such traits as intelligence or homosexuality. Ultimately, the authors argue, we are now living with a new knowledge as powerful in its way as nuclear physics, and the stark choices that face us- between biological warfare and gene therapy, a new eugenics or a new agricultural revolution- will demand the full engagement of both scientists and citizens.

Written in straightforward language but without denying the complexity of the issues, Genomes and What to Make of Them is both an up-to-date primer and a blueprint for the future.

Excerpt

A few miles outside Cambridge, England, in the small village of Hinxton, are the sprawling grounds and buildings of the Wellcome Trust Genome Campus, home to the Sanger Institute. the first thing the visitor to this iconic site of modern biology will see, in a bold electronic display above the reception desk, is a rapidly passing sequence of C's, G's, A's, and T's, which, she will be informed, constitute a real-time readout of dna that is being sequenced somewhere on the premises. the first stop on a tour of the building is a room in which large robots stick tiny probes into Petri dishes and then into rectangular arrays of test tubes. Spots on the nutrient gel in the Petri dishes, she will be told, contain bacteria infected by viruses with fragments of human dna. the replicating bacteria are the means of replicating the human dna within to produce whatever quantities are required. Next, the visitor is invited to peer through a window in the closed door of a room containing the small but expensive machines that perform the polymerase chain reaction, a process that can selectively amplify minute amounts of specifically targeted lengths of dna. Finally, there are the sequencing machines themselves, occupying a warehouse-sized space in which conversation is made difficult by the hum of a powerful cooling system. There are perhaps a hundred sequencers, looking somewhat like large white microwave . . .

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