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The Epigenetics Revolution

by Nessa Carey

cover  

 
Epigenetics bridges the gap between our DNA blueprint and the way cells actually develop. On its own DNA doesn't tell us why some cells turn into bones and others into skin, nor why genetically identical honeybees will sometimes end up as queens and sometimes as workers. This branch of biology looks at how genes are switched off and on, whether temporarily or for a lifetime, and the ways information about which genes to express is encoded and passed between cells.

The book looks at studies of periods of famine in human history, and the sometimes surprising effects they can have down the generations. Identical twins can tell us a lot about the heritability of certain diseases. Why, for instance, does one identical twin have a 50% chance of getting schizophrenia if the other one has it? When nurture and the environment impact our genetic destiny in such ways, these are epigenetic effects.

The author explains cell differentiation, the process of cells changing into a certain type and staying that way, very accessibly. I particularly liked the vivid analogies she uses to explain all the concepts. Nessa Carey makes this topic as easy to understand as everyday life with metaphors such as balls rolling down hills, grapes stuck inside tennis balls, Lego bricks, broken zips and painting and decorating.

The effects of epigenetics are wide-ranging, and so is this book. It includes nuclear transfer experiments with toads, how cells revert to stem cells, and the importance of prenatal nutrition when it comes to lifetime development and obesity. There's a section on why mammals can't reproduce using parthenogenesis, and how germline cells get reset. Our so-called junk DNA contains lots that we don't yet understand, and that comes under the spotlight too. There's an interesting section on the possibilities for new cancer treatments, a discussion of the link between early life stress and neglect and later psychiatric problems, and a depressing explanation of the link between cancer and ageing which spells out why life extension is so very difficult.

This is a fascinating field, a real frontier that promises to open up new vistas in our knowledge of biology, and whether you're a scientist or not The Epigenetics Revolution will have you reaching for the lab coat and Petri dish in excitement. There are a few too many acronyms later in the book, but on the whole it's clearly and engagingly explained. Key concepts are reinforced with some repetition so they're easier to take in. I'm not a biologist but by the end of this book DNA methylation, pluripotent cells and histone markers had lost their power to baffle me.

I'm not sure sure why the author finishes off by speculating who should win a Nobel prize for work in this area. However she communicates an infectious optimism about this subject. The genetic code for some animals may already be mapped, but the complexity of epigenetics means we've barely scratched the surface of the cell's workings and we can look forward to new discoveries in this area for years to come.

1st May 2012

Book Details

Year: 2011

Categories: Books

  Science
 
  Highbrow

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