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The Genomics Age    by Gina Smith order for
Genomics Age
by Gina Smith
Order:  USA  Can
AMACOM, 2004 (2004)

Read an Excerpt

* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Gina Smith is a well-known American science journalist. She brings that background, with engaging enthusiasm, to bear in surveying the 21st century impact of the 1953 Double Helix discovery by James Watson and Francis Crick. She quotes Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute in Maryland, who said 'we are now able to read our own instruction book ... It is also a history book explaining how humans have evolved over time. It's a shop manual that describes with incredible precision how to build every cell in the human body ... it's a medical textbook containing insights that will help doctors predict and, eventually, cure disease.'

That quote is a good summary of the scope of the book, which addresses all these topics as well as the ethical and societal issues that spin off the new discoveries. Gina Smith tells us that her goal in writing the book was to explain the advances that DNA research is expected to bring, that will affect (and possibly extend) our current lifetimes, and to arm readers with enough understanding to be able to make sense of genetic research reports in science news. She provides 'It's a Fact' summaries at the end of each chapter, including for example the fact that 'Scientists still don't know what more than 50 percent of genes do.' She introduces us to the basics of cells, chromosomes and DNA. (Did you know there's no DNA in red blood cells? I didn't.) Comparing the genome race to the arms race and the space race, Smith discusses the evolution of research techniques for DNA sequencing, but emphasizes that knowing human genome sequences (achieved in April 2003) is just the beginning. Some of the information is humbling, e.g. that we share 75 percent of our genes with a mouse and 40 percent with roundworms (which by the way, are subjects in longevity research). Within humankind, irrespective of race, we differ only by a tenth of a percentage of DNA, being a 'young species' from an evolutionary perspective. We also have a high percentage of little understood 'Junk DNA'.

So what are the spin-offs of this major advance in human knowledge? A surprising number of Death Row inmates have been exonerated as a result of DNA research, and you've probably heard about the testing done on the Romanov mass grave. There are exciting new developments in cancer research, covered here in some detail. Smith discusses the controversy and the promise of stem cell research (making a careful distinction between therapeutic and reproductive cloning, the latter fraught with medical and ethical problems). And she discusses the promise of experimental gene therapy and gene-based medicine, as well as the need for safeguards. What are the concerns? Smith talks about an increasing use of 'DNA dragnets' (checking DNA of males in the vicinity of a crime). There's a growing field of predictive and preventive medicine, but should you tell someone they are predisposed to have a disorder when there's no cure? And how will DNA typing affect medical insurance rates? There are serious concerns about genetic discrimination and privacy. There's also the possibility of 'designer babies'. Will this lead to a 'genetic underclass', with only the wealthy able to afford to optimize their offsprings' genes?

The potential is fascinating, and also somewhat frightening. There are many possibilities, but they come with issues of cost and availability. It certainly behooves us all to become informed on these topics, and reading the popular science perspective of The Genomics Age is a good way to start for those without a strong science background.

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