Book Review

Larissa Tetsch

Siddhartha Mukherjee:
The Gene: An Intimate History

Paperback: 608 pages
Publisher: Vintage (23 Mar. 2017)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0099584573
ISBN-13: 978-0099584575
€31 (hardcover), €9 (softcover), €10 (eBook)

Biography of the Gene

The Indian-American cancer researcher, Siddhartha Mukherjee, delivers nothing less than a complete history of genetics and heredity. His book is not only compellingly informative but also deeply philosophical.

Photo: BrokenSphere/Wikimedia Commons

Not much more than a century has passed since the rediscovery of Mendel’s Laws of Inheritance – which were widely ignored by contemporaries – until the complete deciphering of the human genome in 2003. The huge scientific progress, concerning the concept of genes as informational units of heredity, fell into four phases that correspond roughly with the four quarters of the 20th century. In the first phase, scientists established the cellular basis of heredity, the chromosomes on which genes could be localised by mapping. In the second phase, completed by the discovery of the double helix structure, DNA was pinned down as heredity’s molecular basis. In the third phase, scientists like Jacques Monod elucidated how genes actually work, forming the informational basis of heredity. By decoding the genetic language and understanding the mechanisms by which cells process genetic information to coin a phenotype, scientists learned to harness genes for their own use. This led to sequencing and cloning technologies that still have a tremendous impact on human society. The fourth phase was the era of genomics, in which complete genomes were deciphered.

100 years of genetics

These four phases form the outline of The Gene, the almost 600-page masterpiece of cancer researcher Siddhartha Mukherjee, Assistant Professor at the Columbia University Medical Center in New York. However, The Gene goes beyond the completion of the Human Genome Project, expands to our times and well into the future. While the first part is a highly informative history book describing the quest of Gregor Mendel, Charles Darwin, Thomas Hunt Morgan and many more for a theory of heredity, the beginnings of gene technology and the development of gene therapies, the second part is of more philosophical nature. Here, Mukherjee delivers a positioning of where human genetics and modern medicine stand today, what is already possible in regard to therapeutic manipulations of the genome and which impact it might have on patients and mankind altogether, if the decoding of individual genomes became widely accessible.

Quest for better genes

Mukherjee is not only a scientist and a physician but also personally affected by a potential genetic disorder. Two of four uncles from his father’s side and one cousin suffered from a psychiatric condition, either schizophrenia or manic depression. Mukherjee knows that these ailments are heritable, that his own and his children’s future lies in their genes. In spite of the enthusiasm for new therapeutic and diagnostic possibilities, the author warns against reducing people to a potentially ailment-provoking gene variant and recommends that we consider the impact that a genetic diagnosis might have on the concerned person: a previvor – as some of them call themselves – who knows that a given mutation will to some extent lead to a medical condition but who does not know when or how this condition will manifest. Previvors have to cope with an uncertainty that in some cases may be worse than the disease itself.

Where we are about to manipulate complete genomes instead of single genes, Mukherjee sees humankind at a crossroad on the way to an accelerated human genome technology. He thoroughly deals with the approach of gene therapies to eradicate pathogenic mutations from the human gene pool and, although he acknowledges that gene therapies have the potential to spare patients immense suffering, reminds us of cases of eugenics both in the United States at the beginning of the 20th century as well as in Nazi Germany. In his opinion this negative eugenics must not be replaced by a positive one which sets about to improve the human genome by selectively manipulating it. After all, it is always a genome (of a designated person) that defines, which gene variants are normal and which are mutant.

The Gene is highly recommended for anyone, who is interested in the history of molecular biology and its protagonists as well as for those, who want to know what is already possible in regards to gene editing, and what we can expect of the future. In addition, the reader learns a lot about human descent and sexual identity. Mukherjee recounts exciting stories about the first thera­peutic protein ever to be produced recombinantly, the race for the human genome and today’s approaches to producing the first transgenic humans using CRISPR-Cas gene editing technology in China. Along the way, he affords a touching insight into his own family history after the division of Bengal in North India, which led to the foundation of the sovereign Republic of Bangladesh and the traumatising displacement of Mukherjee’s grandmother and many others to West-Bengal’s (still Indian) capital Kolkata.

Touching insights

Even now, the story of Carrie Buck (to whom the book is dedicated) is still terrifying. The young woman and her mother were forcibly transferred to the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded in Lynchburg after a deliberate diagnosis of ‘moronism’, and sterilised in the 1920s. This, from today’s point of view, unthinkable procedure was meant to improve the human gene pool by preventing sexual reproduction of ‘unsuitable’ individuals. Through Carrie Buck’s example, Mukherjee demonstrates emphatically where the irresponsible use of scientific findings can lead a society. In the era of post-genomics, where the first human transgenic embryo might be about to be created, it is our responsibility to resist the repetition of any form of such genetic ‘cleansing’.

Letzte Änderungen: 28.11.2017

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