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The Sequence - Inside the race for the human genome


In the 1970s, the plant physiologist Witham Fogg suggested that all plant physiology texts should be printed as disposable paperbacks, so that they could be thrown away once their contents were superseded by more recent findings. That advice could be applied to most books about the human genome, although unusually it doesn't apply to this one.

The new paperback version of Kevin Davies's book has two advantages over the previous hardback edition: firstly, it is cheaper and secondly, it completes the story by describing the eventual publication, in the journals Nature and Science, of data from the public and private genome projects respectively. However, in contrast to accounts like Matt Ridley's 'Genome', there's relatively little science in this book. It is not a catalogue of information about the location and function of genes on chromosomes. There's therefore nothing to go out-of-date. Davies is more concerned with the mechanics and political machinations of sequencing the human genome (or, as the first President Bush famously referred to it, "the human gnome project".)

Starting by recounting the 'double helix' story, Davies quickly moves on to describe the origins of the public genome project under its first director James Watson. A single chapter describes how sequencing is achieved, and although there are no diagrams to assist the reader the explanations are clear and straightforward. The intwined development and growth of the two genome projects is then traced, culminating in the increasingly acrimonious race between the public and private sectors.

Davies, the founding editor of Nature Genetics, offers an insider's view of the contest. The book is packed with fascinating anecdotes and reveals the personalities and motivation of many of those involved; a useful reminder, if one were needed, of how large scientific projects are as much a political game as a Corinthian one. Scattered amongst the intrigue are scientific snippets to which prevent the book from descending into a high-brow slanging match.

There's a comprehensive section of notes and references for those who wish to seek additional information.

The completion of genome project, we're often told, promises to change our view of ourselves for good. This book also reveals how genetics has now become big business and that it too, has changed forever.

Dean Madden
National Centre for Biotechnology Education
The University of Reading
Reading RG6 6AP
The United Kingdom

Sidansvarig: Sven Toresson|Sidan uppdaterades: 2016-07-13

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