Skip to main content

Hacking the Code of Life - Nessa Carey *****

Nessa Carey has proved consistently effective in putting across the next generation (as it were) aspects of genetics that take as far beyond the selfish gene. We've had The Epigenetics Revolution and Junk DNA on the aspects of genetics where genes are switched on and off, and looking at the parts of DNA that don't code for genes. Now, with Hacking the Code of Life, we come from the natural side to human intervention - the ability to edit the genome and the implications of this ability.

In the past we've seen rather hysterical responses to gene editing, whether it's campaigns against genetically modified organisms that have prevented life-saving developments and wider availability of food, or dramatic predictions of disaster. Carey gives us a more balanced picture. She doesn't play down the risks - but all technology comes with risk. Use of fire might have been one of the greatest steps forward in human development, but it can also kill people. We had to learn to control it and regulate it, and the same goes for gene editing.

In this slim volume, Carey takes us through the mechanics of making modifications to the genome, from the early crude mechanisms to the remarkable precision of CRISPR - which is where things really begin to take off for the future.

The book covers medical applications, the potential transformation of agriculture (surely it's time for the EU to get its act together on GM, which is very different now with these new technologies? - and let's face we've been genetically modifying crops since the beginning of agriculture), animal applications and whether or not we should actively modify ourself, not just to deal with illnesses but to enhance the human species.

All this is packed into a 160-page book (excluding notes), which is a welcome relief after the tendency to produced vast, over-written popular science titles. This is the kind of book that should be issued to every politician and civil servant involved in these kind of processes as a background read - short enough to have time to get through it, but detailed enough to really make the reader think and have a clear picture of what's involved. CRISPR has been around for a little while now and we've been lacking a concise book that covers its implications - we've got that now in this excellent title.
Paperback 

Kindle 
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The World According to Physics - Jim Al-Khalili *****

There is a temptation on seeing this book to think it's another one of those physics titles that is thin on content, so they put it in an odd format small hardback and hope to win over those who don't usually buy science books. But that couldn't be further from the truth. In Jim Al-Khalili's The World According to Physics, we've got the best beginners' overview of what physics is all about that I've ever had the pleasure to read.

The language is straightforward and approachable. Rather than take the more common historical approach that builds up physics the way it was discovered, Al-Khalili starts with the 'three pillars' of physics: relativity, quantum theory and thermodynamics. In simple language with never an equation nor even a diagram in sight, the book lays out what physics is all about, what it has achieved and what it still needs to do.

That bit about no diagrams is an important indicator of how approachable the text is. Personally, I'm no…

Until the End of Time: Brian Greene ***

Things start well with this latest title from Brian Greene: after a bit of introductory woffle we get into an interesting introduction to entropy. As always with Greene's writing, this is readable, chatty and full of little side facts and stories. Unfortunately, for me, the book then suffers something of an increase in entropy itself as on the whole it then veers more into philosophy and the soft sciences than Greene's usual physics and cosmology.

So, we get chapters on consciousness, language, belief and religion, instinct and creativity, duration and impermanence, the ends of time and, most cringe-making as a title, 'the nobility of being'. Unlike the dazzling scientific presentation I expect, this mostly comes across as fairly shallow amateur philosophising.

Of course it's perfectly possible to write good science books on, say, consciousness or language - but though Greene touches on the science, there far too much that's more hand-waving. And good though he i…

Jim Al-Khalili - Four Way Interview

Jim Al-Khalili hosts The Life Scientific on BBC Radio 4 and has presented numerous BBC television documentaries. He is Professor of Theoretical Physics and Chair in the Public Engagement in Science at the University of Surrey, a New York Times bestselling author, and a fellow of the Royal Society. He is the author of numerous books, including Quantum: A Guide for the Perplexed; The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance; and Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology. The paperback of his novel Sunfall is published in March 2020 by Transworld. His latest book is The World According to Physics.


Why physics?

I fell in love with physics when I was 13 or 14, when I realised not only that I was pretty good at it at school – basically common sense and puzzle solving – but because it was the subject that answered the big questions I had started contemplating, like whether the stars in the night sky went on for ever, what they were ma…